Update 6.30pm: Russia will refuse to meet Theresa May’s midnight deadline unless Britain agrees to send Moscow samples of the nerve agent used to poison Sergei Skripal.
The country’s embassy in the UK fired off a salvo of seven tweets in which it said Britain must comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention for a joint investigation and warned the threat of sanctions would “meet with a response”.
It comes as President Donald Trump told Mrs May in a phone call the US is “with the UK all the way”, according to Downing Street. Mrs May said the Government had concluded it is “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the attack which left ex-spy Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia in a critical condition in hospital.
She demanded that Moscow account for how a Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury and vowed to set out measures Britain will adopt if no credible response is received by the end of Tuesday.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd earlier said Russia had “started responding” but the embassy appeared to suggest this amounted to little more than informing the Foreign Office of its demands and reiterating it was not involved.
Britain’s ambassador to Russia was summoned by Moscow and told by first deputy foreign minister Vladimir Titov that the Kremlin “strongly protested” the accusations, the embassy said.
Salisbury spy probe could take weeks as investigators carry out ‘painstaking’ inquiry on nerve agent
The Salisbury spy probe could take several weeks as investigators carry out a “painstaking” operation to identify how a nerve agent was used to poison a former double agent on British soil.
Giving the first investigative update on the case since Theresa May publicly pointed the finger at Russia, counter-terror police chief Neil Basu said officers’ “prime focus” is to establish the method used to administer the chemical weapon.
A huge police inquiry was launched after former double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury, Wiltshire, on March 4. They remain in a critical condition. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was part of the initial police response, was also taken ill. He is in a serious but stable condition.
Speaking at Scotland Yard, Mr Basu said:
“The public are going to continue to see a great deal of police activity in and around the city, including potentially more cordons being erected, but please don’t be alarmed.
“It is necessary as part of this major investigation by the counter-terrorism policing network. In truth it may last many weeks.”
The Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner would not identify any potential suspect, saying: “It’s a painstaking operation to identify anyone of interest to this inquiry, and eliminate them or include them, but at this stage we are not declaring a person of interest or a suspect.”
Investigators are also focusing on Mr Skripal’s red BMW, registration number HD09 WAO, and appealing for any witnesses who saw the pair in the car between 1pm and 1.45pm on March 4 to come forward. Police have so far collected 380 exhibits and have been scouring hours of CCTV footage from across the city.
Detailing the timeline leading up to the pair being taken ill, Mr Basu disclosed that Yulia had arrived at Heathrow Airport on a flight from Russia the day before.
The senior officer referred to Mr Skripal as a British national and Yulia as a Russian citizen.
He also revealed that a total of 38 people had been seen by medics in relation to the incident, of whom 34 had been assessed and discharged from hospital.
Three people remain in hospital – the Skripals and Mr Bailey. One other unnamed person is being monitored as an outpatient but is not showing signs of exposure to the chemical weapon. As the clock ticked towards the midnight deadline Theresa May set for Moscow to explain how a military-grade chemical from a group of nerve agents known as Novichok came to be used on British soil.
It emerged that police and MI5 are to look into allegations that a string of other deaths on UK soil may be linked to Russia.
Peter Wilson, the UK’s permanent representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said the “indiscriminate and reckless” attack on the Skripals was the first offensive use of a nerve agent of any sort on European territory since the Second World War.
The Government was weighing up Britain’s options should Russia not provide a satisfactory response – with a cyber counter-strike said to be among the possible measures being considered, along with economic, financial and diplomatic action.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov insisted the country was not to blame, and asked for access to samples of the poison. France, Germany and former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, speaking before he was sacked, all gave their backing to the UK.
Ahead of a call with Mrs May, US president Donald Trump said: “It sounds to me like it would be Russia based on all of the evidence they have.” The episode has left Britain’s relations with Moscow, which were already under severe strain, at breaking point.
On Monday, Mrs May said the Government had concluded it is “highly likely” Russia was responsible.
She demanded that Moscow account for how a Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury and vowed to set out a “full range” of measures Britain will adopt if no credible response is received by the end of Tuesday.
President Trump has appeared to back the British Government in the row with Moscow over the Salisbury nerve gas attack, saying:
“It sounds to me like it would be Russia based on all of the evidence they have.” He was questioned after he sacked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just hours after Mr Tillerson strongly supported the UK.
The President told reporters outside the White House: “Theresa May is going to be speaking to me today. “It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia and I would certainly take that finding as fact.”
The President, who had initially avoided blaming the Kremlin over the assassination attempt against former double agent Sergei Skripal, had announced on Twitter that Mr Tillerson would be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo.
The Washington Post reported that the decision was made on Friday and Mr Trump said he and Mr Tillerson, who had reportedly once called the President a ‘moron’, had been “talking about this for a long time” and had disagreed on issues like the Iran deal.
But with the Trump camp’s links with Moscow facing continued scrutiny, the timing of the announcement prompted questions about the President’s support for the UK in the row with Russia.
Britain needs to be “much, much tougher” in its response to Russia over the Salisbury nerve agent attack, a prominent Tory MP has said.
Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, said any decision not to send “a lot of dignitaries” to the World Cup, due to take place this summer in Russia, was “nowhere near good enough” and was a “pathetic response”.
Speaking during a Westminster Hall debate on the Diplomatic Service and resources, Sir Nicholas (Mid Sussex) was asked by the DUP’s Jim Shannon (Strangford) if withdrawing from the World Cup and having it in England would be an impressive way of putting pressure on Russia to change.
Sir Nicholas responded: “I don’t think that it’s nearly serious enough for the kind of steps that I believe this Government will need to take against Russia. I think just to say that you’re not going to send a lot of dignitaries to the World Cup is nowhere near good enough, it’s a pathetic response.
“We will need to do much, much better and be much, much tougher than that so that they understand across the full spectrum that this is the kind of behaviour up with which we will not put.” He joked that he used to say: “The Treasury do work for the Russians (in) the way that they have undermined successfully our military effort.”
Sir Nicholas branded Brexit a “very poor” decision”, arguing there was a compelling and unassailable case for Britain to retain and develop its active diplomacy.
Britain, he said, was at a crossroads, adding: “Our global influence is already coming under very considerable pressure and it is essential for the further success, safety and security of this realm that our diplomacy is properly resourced.”
He warned the country was not a superpower but a middle-ranking one, arguing it was “inevitable that our influence – already, sadly but quite clearly, on the wane – will inevitably further decrease as the realities of the folly of our exit from the EU become clear”.