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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

UK scientists unable to identify Russia as source for nerve agent

The head of Britain's defence laboratory said that a state actor was likely to be responsible but could not confirm it was Russia

Porton Down, the home of Britain's Ministry of Defence's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, which tested the samples of nerve agent. AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL
Porton Down, the home of Britain's Ministry of Defence's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, which tested the samples of nerve agent. AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL

British scientists have been unable to identify the origin of the nerve agent used to target a Russian double agent and his daughter in the UK, a senior official said on Tuesday.

Testing had shown that it was military grade nerve agent but it could not be shown to have come from Russia, said Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down.

The admission is likely to be seized on by Russia, which has suggested that the nerve agent could have come from other nations, or from Porton Down, which is 12 kilometres from Salisbury, the scene of the attack.

Mr Aitkenhead said blame had been laid at the door of Russia because of other information available to the British government. He said that the creation of the Novichok agent would have required “extremely sophisticated” methods likely to be available only to a state actor.

“We were able to identify it as Novichok, to identify that it was a military grade nerve agent. We have not verified that precise source,” he told Sky News.

He dismissed Russian claims that it could have come from Porton Down. “It certainly isn’t anything that came from our facility,” he said. “We have the highest standards of control.”

He said there was no known antidote for the “extremely toxic substance” and one had not been provided for the Skripals, who were stricken by the nerve agent after it was probably smeared on the door of their home.

Sergei Skripal — who settled in Britain after a 2010 spy swap — remains critically ill in hospital. His daughter Yulia has been taken off the critical list. Russian officials are seeking to visit her in hospital.

More than 150 Russian diplomats have been expelled by 29 countries and Nato after the British government convinced international allies that there was no plausible alternative explanation than for Russia to have carried out the attack.

A UK government spokesman said additional evidence that pointed to Russia included "our knowledge" that Russia was investigating ways to use nerve agents for possible assassinations and the stockpiling of small quantities of the Novichok agent.

"It is our assessment that Russia was responsible for this brazen and reckless act and, as the international community agrees, there is no other plausible explanation," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin on Tuesday expressed hope that a meeting of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog would put a “full stop” to the issue.

“We hope that during those discussions a full stop will be placed on [the issue of] what happened” to former spy Sergei Skripal, Mr Putin said in Ankara ahead of the meeting on Wednesday of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The OPCW said Russia had asked for the meeting but London has already accused Moscow of requesting the OPCW talks as a “diversionary tactic”.

Mr Putin said he had been informed of comments made by Porton Down.

“Concerning this, it is above all surprising the speed with which an anti-Russian campaign was begun,” the Russian president commented after talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

He argued that experts have said that such nerve agents could have been made in about 20 countries.

Noting that the victims of the poisoning were both Russian nationals, Mr Putin reaffirmed that Russia wanted to take part in the investigation.

“We have an interest in a full investigation and want Russia to be allowed to take part in that investigation,” he said.