Ridicule as members of suspected Russia assassination squad go public with claim they were sight-seeing tourists
Skripal suspects: We were just visiting the cathedral
The two men accused of carrying out a nerve agent attack on a former spy on British soil broke their cover Thursday to deny their involvement in the fatal mission and claim they had no links to the Russian military intelligence service.
The man, who identified themselves as suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, told the pro-Kremlin news channel RT that they travelled to the southern English town of Salisbury to admire its cathedral and ancient clock.
In a series of clips posted by the news channel, the two men denied the central allegations laid against them by British police and said that they had not brought a perfume bottle containing the deadly Russian-manufactured agent Novichok into the country.
Britain immediately rejected the pair’s claims which they described as “obfuscation and lies” and maintained the assertion of police and prosecutors that they were members of the GRU intelligence agency.
Police last week released dossier of evidence that pointed to the likely involvement of the two men including CCTV footage from the town, flight records, accommodation details and scientific tests that identified traces of Novichok at a hotel where they stayed.
They said there was enough evidence to prosecute them of conspiring to murder former Russia spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent in Salisbury, England, in March, but the government said seeking their extradition from Russia was futile.
Police said that they believed the names were aliases – but the two men insisted they were their real names and denied they were intelligence operatives. “To cut a long story short, we are in the fitness industry.”
Security experts told The National that they had anticipated the pair would make a public appearance after comments by Russian president Vladimir Putin earlier this week suggesting that they might soon tell their story.
They said, however, that they were surprised at the pair’s failure to come up with a credible alternative story to counter a British police dossier that pointed to their involvement and to muddy the waters, a known Russian military deception tactic known as maskirovka.
“The maskirovka script writer must have had writer’s block,” said Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence officer. “What we’re see here is Putin just continuing to play with us because he can. Does it affect the credibility of anything for those in the know? The answer to that is no.”
The Moscow-based editor-in-chief of RT, Margarita Simonyan, said that the two men had contacted her by phone and she spent an evening with them before the clips of the interview were aired on Thursday. RT has a licence to operate in the UK but is under investigation by regulators over its coverage of the Salisbury affair.
Wearing sweaters and appearing uncomfortable with the questioning, the two men claimed that they travelled as tourists to Salisbury and explained that they made two trips to Salisbury after bad weather hampered their first day trip. “Our friends had suggested for a long time that we visit this wonderful town," the men told RT, explaining their presence in Salisbury.
“It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, one of the first ever created in the world that's still working.”
John Glen, MP for Salisbury, said the suspect's accounts were not credible. “Delighted that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Borishov were able to see the world-class attractions that Salisbury has to offer. But very strange to come all this way for just two days while carrying Novichok in their luggage,” he tweeted.
The Skripals continue to recover at a secret location from the effects of the agent. Two other people were affected and a woman, Dawn Sturgess, died in July after spraying herself with nerve agent after discovering the discarded bottle.
The British government said it was “clear these men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service - the GRU - who used a devastatingly toxic, illegal chemical weapon on the streets of our country.”