Rus­sia ‘tested its poi­son on han­dles’

UK se­cu­rity chief sends pre­vi­ously clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence to Nato

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Ewen MacAskill

Rus­sia had tested whether door han­dles could be used to de­liver nerve agents and had tar­geted the email ac­counts of Sergei and Yu­lia Skri­pal since at least 2013, ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ously clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence over the Sal­is­bury at­tack that has been made pub­lic. The UK re­leased the in­tel­li­gence last Fri­day, link­ing Rus­sia to the at­tack on the for­mer dou­ble agent and his daugh­ter.

The door han­dle and email claims were made in a let­ter from Sir Mark Sed­will, the UK’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, to the Nato sec­re­tary gen­eral, Jens Stoltenberg. It is rare for the UK to make such in­tel­li­gence pub­lic. In the let­ter, Sed­will, who has an overview of the work of all Bri­tish spy ser­vices, filled in some of the in­tel­li­gence the prime min­is­ter, Theresa May, re­ferred to when she made a par­lia­men­tary state­ment say­ing Rus­sia was highly likely to have been be­hind the at­tack.

In re­sponse, the Rus­sian am­bas­sador in Lon­don, Alexan­der Yakovenko, an­nounced that the em­bassy would be pub­lish­ing its own re­port on the at­tack. “The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment still hasn’t pro­duced any ev­i­dence in sup­port of its po­si­tion that would con­firm their of­fi­cial ver­sion,” he told a press con­fer­ence. “We get the im­pres­sion the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment is de­lib­er­ately pur­su­ing the pol­icy of de­stroy­ing all pos­si­ble ev­i­dence.”

In his Nato let­ter, Sed­will said the nerve agent novi­chok had been de­vel­oped at the Rus­sian re­search fa­cil­ity in Shikhany as part of an of­fen­sive chem­i­cal weapons pro­gramme with the co­de­name Fo­liant. Sed­will said Rus­sia re­garded at least some of its de­fec­tors as “le­git­i­mate tar­gets for as­sas­si­na­tion”, with the sug­ges­tion they could in­clude Skri­pal, a for­mer mem­ber of the GRU, Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence, who was con­victed by Rus­sia of es­pi­onage in 2004 af­ter work­ing for MI6. “We have in­for­ma­tion in­di­cat­ing Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence ser­vice in­ter­est in the Skri­pals, dat­ing back at least as far as 2013, when email ac­counts be­long­ing to Yu­lia Skri­pal were tar­geted by GRU cy­ber spe­cial­ists,” Sed­will wrote.

He also said: “Dur­ing the 2000s, Rus­sia com­menced a pro­gramme to test means of de­liv­er­ing chem­i­cal war­fare agents and to train per­son­nel from spe­cial units in the use of these weapons. This pro­gramme sub­se­quently in­cluded in­ves­ti­ga­tion of ways of de­liv­er­ing nerve agents, in­clud­ing by ap­pli­ca­tion to door han­dles. Within the last decade, Rus­sia has pro­duced and stock­piled small quan­ti­ties of novi­choks under the same pro­gramme … It is highly un­likely that any for­mer Soviet repub­lic (other than Rus­sia) pur­sued an of­fen­sive chem­i­cal weapons pro­gramme af­ter in­de­pen­dence. It is un­likely that novi­choks could be made and de­ployed by non-state ac­tors (eg a crim­i­nal or ter­ror­ist group).”

The de­ci­sion to re­lease the in­tel­li­gence is partly in re­sponse to Rus­sia’s re­peated de­nials that it is re­spon­si­ble for the at­tack. The Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons, which is linked to the UN, con­firmed last Thurs­day that a novi­chok nerve agent had been used in Sal­is­bury.

Yu­lia Skri­pal, mean­while, said she did not wish to take up the of­fer of ser­vices from the Rus­sian em­bassy, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment is­sued on her be­half by the Met­ro­pol­i­tan po­lice. In the state­ment, pub­lished last Wed­nes­day, she said her fa­ther re­mained se­ri­ously ill and she was still suf­fer­ing from nerve agent ef­fects. She also ad­dressed com­ments by her cousin Vik­to­ria in the Rus­sian me­dia, ask­ing her not to con­tact or visit her in the UK.

Skri­pal said she was safe and would give in­ter­views in time. The state­ment came two days af­ter she was dis­charged from Sal­is­bury District Hos­pi­tal.

Re­cov­er­ing … Yu­lia and her fa­ther Sergei Skri­pal

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