VLADIVOSTOK: Russia’s Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that two men Britain suspects of poisoning former spy Sergei Skripal with military-grade nerve agent had been identified as “civilians” and were not criminals.
Putin urged the men to address the media saying there was “nothing criminal” about them, as he spoke at an economic forum in the far eastern city of Vladivostok.
“We know who they are, we have found them,” Putin said at the forum attended by Japan’s Shinzo Abe and China’s Xi Jinping.
“They are civilians, of course,” he said, apparently responding to a claim by the British authorities that the two suspects are members of Russia’s military intelligence agency.
“I hope they will turn up themselves and tell about themselves” to journalists, Putin said in comments that hinted they could make a public statement shortly.
“There is nothing special there, nothing criminal, I assure you. We’ll see in the near future.”
British authorities have issued European arrest warrants for Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, two suspected members of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU.
They are accused of trying to kill Russian former spy Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the Novichok nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury on March 4, in an attack London believes was sanctioned by the Kremlin.
The president himself had not communicated with the men since they were accused in the case, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
Meanwhile, the Russia 24 state television channel played what it said was a call with suspect Petrov, who said he had “so far no comment, maybe later, next week, I think.”
Russian state media has reported that a man named Alexander Petrov worked for a pharmaceuticals company in the Siberian city of Tomsk and has denied any involvement in the case.
Shortly after Putin’s statement, Britain accused Russia of “obsfuscation and lies.”
“We have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March, and they have replied with obfuscation and lies,” Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman told reporters.
The British government has said Putin is ultimately responsible for the attack, a claim the Kremlin has furiously denied.
London and its allies expelled dozens of Russian diplomats after the poisoning, prompting a tit-for-tat response from Moscow and plunging relations to a new low.
The Skripals survived the poisoning but a local man, Charlie Rowley, picked up a fake perfume bottle containing Novichok weeks later.
Rowley gave it to his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, who later died.
British prosecutors accuse Petrov and Boshirov of conspiracy to murder Skripal, attempted murder and the use of a banned chemical weapon.
They said they would not formally demand the men’s extradition, as Russia does not extradite its citizens, but have obtained a European Arrest Warrant for the pair.
The case has strong echoes of the poisoning of ex-Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in Britain in 2006.
Britain said Russians Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun were behind what it said was a likely Kremlin-backed killing, but the pair have never been tried and Lugovoi has since become a lawmaker in Russia.