EU promises solidarity with Britain over Russian spy poisoning

The EU will stand with the UK in any action against Russia over a nerve agent attack on British soil, a senior official has said. Russia says there's no connection and has summoned the British ambassador.

The European Union has offered Britain solidarity after London accused Russia of being behind a nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury.

The promise by Valdis Dombrovskis,the vice president of the European Commission, comes amid uncertainty in Britain regarding security cooperation after it leaves the EU at the end of March 2019.

When asked whether the EU might impose sanctions of Russia if it was agreed that Moscow was responsible for the attack, Dombrovskis said: "Of course, the UK can count on EU solidarity in this regard."

Read more: Spy assassinations — The top 5 deadly poisons 

A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told Reuters news agency that the use of a military-grade chemical agent in a civilian's murder attempt on UK soil was "shocking."

"We stand with the UK in pursuit of justice in this case and are ready to offer support if necessary."

British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday that it was highly likely Moscow was to blame, as the substance had been identified as part of a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s. She said her government would consider a "full range" of retaliatory measures if Moscow had not given a "credible response" by the end of Tuesday.

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UK allies respond:

  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she took the British government's claim that Russia was involved in the poisoning "very seriously," and urged Moscow to provide "swift answers." 
  • German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said: "It's clear the perpetrators must be held accountable. If it is confirmed that Russia is behind this, that would be a very serious matter."
  • The French Foreign Ministry called the attack "totally unacceptable" and expressed its solidarity to "a top and strategic ally."
  • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington would stand by Britain and that Russia must face "serious consequences" if it was found to be behind the incident. Tillerson was ousted as secretary of state shortly after the announcement. 
  • President Donald Trump later said he would speak with Theresa May on Tuesday about the situation. While Trump indicated that the evidence pointed to Russian involvement, the president said that as soon as facts are evaluated, "if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be."

How has Russia reacted so far?

The Russian Foreign Ministry sharply criticized the UK's accusations in a statement, saying they were "openly provocative," and part of "yet another dirty attempt by British authorities to discredit Russia."

It added that Britain's threats of retaliatory actions "will not be left without a response."

The UK broadcasting regulator has warned that Russian state-owned channel RT could have its British license revoked if London concludes Moscow was behind the attack.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman warned that Russia would not allow any British media outlets to operate on its soil if the license was canceled. 

"Not a single British media outlet will work in our country if they shut down Russia Today (RT)," spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted by the state-run RIA news agency as saying.

She added that nobody should threaten a nuclear power.

Earlier, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted Moscow was not to blame for the attack, and said Russia would cooperate with the investigation only if it received samples of the nerve agent believed to have made the ex-spy and his daughter ill. He said Moscow's requests to see samples had been turned down.

Russia's embassy in London called for a joint investigation into the incident.

What happened in the attack? Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4. They remain in critical but stable condition in hospital. A policeman who attended to them is also in critical condition, but conscious.

Who is Sergei Skripal? Skripal was a colonel in Russia's military intelligence service, the GRU, before he was found guilty of betraying Russian agents to MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service. In 2010, he arrived in Britain as part of a spy swap deal between London and Moscow.

A history of political poisonings

Sergei Skripal

Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former Russian spy, was found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the British city of Salisbury after he was exposed to what police said was an unknown substance. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the situation "tragic" but said, "We don't have information about what could be the cause, what this person did."

A history of political poisonings

Kim Jong Nam

The estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un was killed on February 13, 2018 at Kuala Lumpur airport after two women allegedly smeared the chemical nerve agent VX on his face. In February, a Malaysian court heard that Kim Jong Nam had been carrying a dozen vials of antidote for the deadly nerve agent VX in his backpack at the time of the poisoning.

A history of political poisonings

Alexander Litvinenko

Former Russian spy Litvinenko had worked for the Federal Security Service (FSB) before he defected to Britain, where he became a journalist and wrote two books of accusations against the FSB and Putin. He became ill after meeting with two former KGB officers and died on November 23, 2006. A government inquiry found he was killed by radioactive polonium-210 which it alleged the men put in his tea.

A history of political poisonings

Viktor Kalashnikov

In November 2010, doctors at Berlin's Charité hospital discovered high levels of mercury had been found in a Russian dissident couple working in Berlin. Kalashnikov, a freelance journalist and former KGB colonel, had 3.7 micrograms of mercury per litre of blood, while his wife had 56 micrograms. A safe level is 1-3 micrograms. Viktor reportedly told German magazine Focus that "Moscow poisoned us."

A history of political poisonings

Viktor Yushchenko

Ukrainian opposition leader Yushchenko became sick in September 2004 and was diagnosed with acute pancreatis caused by a viral infection and chemical substances. The illness resulted in facial disfigurement, with pockmarks, bloating and jaundice. Doctors said the changes to his face were from chloracne, which is a result of dioxin poisoning. Yushchenko claimed government agents poisoned him.

A history of political poisonings

Khaled Meshaal

On September 25, 1997, Israel's intelligence agency attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Meshaal, under orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two agents sprayed a poisonous substance into Meshaal's ear as he walked into the Hamas offices in Amman, Jordan. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful and not long afterward the two Israeli agents were captured.

A history of political poisonings

Georgi Markov

In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Markov was waiting at a bus stop after a shift at the BBC when he felt a sharp jab in his thigh. He turned to see a man picking up an umbrella. A small bump appeared where he felt the jab and four days later he died. An autopsy found he'd been killed by a small pellet containing a 0.2-milligram dose of ricin. Many believe the poisoned dart was fired from the umbrella.

A history of political poisonings

Grigori Rasputin

On December 30, 1916, mystic and spiritual healer Rasputin arrived at Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg at the invitation Prince Felix Yusupov. There, Prince Yusupov offered Rasputin cakes laced with potassium cyanide but he just kept eating them. Yusupov then gave him wine in a cyanide-laced wine glasses, but still Rasputin continued to drink. With the poison failing, Rasputin was shot and killed.

tj, jcg/rc (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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