LONDON: Britain and its allies on Thursday (Friday in Manila) blamed Moscow directly for a poison attack on a double agent in England, escalating diplomatic tensions as Washington separately announced sanctions against Russia for allegedly meddling in its elections.
The leaders of Britain, France, Germany and the United States said there was “no plausible alternative explanation” for the use of the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury.
In a joint statement, they demanded Moscow “address all questions” related to the attack against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, which they said amounted to a “breach of international law.”
Skripal moved to Britain in a 2010 spy swap and had taken his daughter Yulia, who was on a visit, out for lunch before they both collapsed on a bench in the street on March 4.
Intelligence agencies now believe the nerve agent used on the pair was planted in the daughter’s suitcase before she left Moscow, the Daily Telegraph reported late Thursday.
“They are working on the theory that the toxin was impregnated in an item of clothing or cosmetics or else in a gift that was opened in his house in Salisbury, meaning Miss Skripal was deliberately targeted to get at her father,” the newspaper said.
In her first visit to Salisbury, where she also met a police officer injured in the incident, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was important to send a “united” response.
“This happened in the UK but it could have happened anywhere and we take a united stance against it,” she said.
US President Donald Trump said: “It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen, and we’re taking it very seriously.”
May on Wednesday announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats and suspended high-level contacts, including announcing that British royals and ministers would boycott this summer’s football World Cup in Russia.
She warned more measures could follow, noting that the US-led NATO alliance and the UN Security Council had discussed the attack, while it was also expected to be on the agenda of the European Union summit next week.
The crisis comes as Russia prepares for a presidential election on Sunday in which Vladimir Putin is expected to easily win a fourth term.
Russia has denied any involvement in the attack, the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would respond by expelling British diplomats “soon.”
He said his country had no motive to target Skripal, but suggested other players could use the poisoning to “complicate” the World Cup.
He also accused Britain of trying to “deflect attention” from its decision to leave the European Union, which has cast uncertainty over its place in the world.
NATO allies on Wednesday put out a joint statement condemning the attack, and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said it must have “consequences.”
He said Britain had not invoked the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause.
But he noted the attack came against the “backdrop of a pattern of reckless behavior” by Russia—a point also made in the US, British, German and French statement.
Opening the Paris Book Fair on Thursday, French president Emmanuel Macron on pointedly avoided the Russian pavilion.
“I decided not to go to the official Russia stall… in solidarity with our British friends,” he told reporters, adding Paris was in contact with London to decide on “appropriate answers to this aggression on the soil of our British allies.”
Separately, Washington on Thursday levied sanctions against Russia’s top spy agencies and more than a dozen individuals for trying to influence the 2016 US presidential election and two separate cyberattacks.
The measures target five entities and 19 individuals—including the FSB, Russia’s top spy service; the military intelligence agency, or GRU; and 13 people recently indicted by Robert Mueller, the US special counsel handling a sprawling Russia probe.
Sanctions were also levied against individuals behind the separate Petya cyberattack and an “ongoing” attempt to hack the US energy grid.