LONDON – Chemical weapons experts arrived in Britain on Monday to collect samples of the nerve agent used to poison a former Russian double agent, as European leaders condemned the attack and urged Russia to account for the presence of the nerve agent.
The team from The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will send the samples to an international laboratory, with results expected within two weeks.
Britain hopes that the OPCW’s independent tests will verify its own results and put to rest claims the nerve agent could have been developed outside Russia.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia should make clear whether it had any connection with the attack in the southern city of Salisbury.
Moscow should “take responsibility for any possible programmes that were not declared to the OPCW,” Macron said in a telephone conversation with the Russian leader, according to an Elysee Palace statement on Monday.
Moscow has repeatedly denied responsibility for the March 4 attack, with the recently re-elected Putin claiming on Sunday that his country had “eliminated all of our chemical weapons.”
In Brussels, the European Union said it “strongly condemns” the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, urging Russia to urgently address questions raised by London and its allies.
“The EU is shocked at the offensive use of any military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, for the first time on European soil in over 70 years,” the bloc’s foreign ministers said in a joint statement.
The 28-country bloc said the use of chemical weapons was a clear violation of international rules and called on Russia “to address urgently the questions raised by the UK and the international community and to provide immediate, full and complete disclosure of its Novichok programme to the OPCW.”
Novichok is a military-grade nerve agent developed decades ago in the Soviet Union.
Speaking in Brussels, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said the Russian denials were getting “increasingly absurd.”
“One time they say that they never made Novichok; another time they say they did make Novichok, but all the stocks have been destroyed; and then again they say that they made Novichok and all the stocks have been destroyed, but some of them have mysteriously escaped to Sweden or the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the United States, or even … the United Kingdom,” Johnson told reporters.
“I think what people can see that this is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal a needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation,” he added.
It was unclear Monday whether the EU could impose further sanctions on Russia in response to the attack. Moscow is already subject to restrictive measures imposed by the EU over its activities in Ukraine.
“We are still in the process of understanding [what happened],” said Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, noting that this was likely to take a while.
Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, remain in a critical condition in hospital.
The case has led to an ongoing diplomatic row between Russia and Britain, with both expelling 23 diplomats and suspending high-level contacts. -DPA