Foreign secretarys remarks precede Trump sacking of Tillerson, who had criticised Moscow

The UK has been encouraged by the “strength of support” from allies to taken any steps against Russia after the nerve agent attack on a former spy and his daughter, Boris Johnson said just hours before the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was sacked by Donald Trump.

Tillerson, who spoke to the foreign secretary on Monday afternoon, had told reporters the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal” clearly came from Russia” and would have consequences.

His remarks went farther than those of Theresa May, who told the House of Commons on Monday it was ” highly likely” Russia was behind the two attacks. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had stopped short of pointing the thumb at Russia.

Just hours after Johnson had welcomed US support, Trump tweeted that he had replaced Tillerson with the CIA director, Mike Pompeo. The sacking may not be linked to Tillerson’s comments on Russia; relations between the pair are believed to have been deteriorating for some time, especially over the Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s announcement that he would meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

It is unclear when Tillerson learned that his dismissal was imminent. It was first reported he had known since Friday, which was was rejected by sources, and a state department spokesman later said Tillerson” did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason” and later indicated he had read the news on Twitter.

The US president said he would speak to the British “ministers ” about the Salisbury poisoning on Tuesday.

Trump said:” It voices to me like they believe it was Russia … I would certainly take that finding as fact .” But he added:” If we get the facts straight we will denounced Russia, or whoever it might be .”

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Downing Street is hoping for a strong statement of support from Trump when he speaks with May on Tuesday, having previously been encouraged by such direct disapproval from Tillerson.

Skripal and his daughter remain in hospital in a critical condition while the Wiltshire police detective sergeant Nick Bailey is in a serious but stable condition.

Bailey is making good progress, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism police officer said. Delivering an updated report on the police investigation outside New Scotland Yard on Tuesday, the Metropolitan police deputy assistant commissioner, Neil Basu, said 38 people were find by medical staff in the aftermath of the” reckless, despicable and targeted” attack.

Of those, 34 have been assessed and discharged and one more person is still being monitored as an outpatient but is not showing signs of illness. Previously, police had said 21 people had been affected.

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Theresa May: highly likely Russia is behind Salisbury spy attack- video

In an interview earlier on Tuesday, Johnson recurred May’s ultimatum to the Kremlin that it must explain by midnight on Tuesday if it was behind the two attacks, or if it had allowed the deadly nerve agent novichok to get into the incorrect hands.

” If they can come up with a convincing rationale, then plainly we will want to see full disclosure of that to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague ,” Johnson said.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Russia had requested access to the substance to perform its own checks but the request had been refused. May’s spokesman hit back at Lavrov’s suggestion that Britain could be transgressing the chemical weapons convention.

” The UK fully complies with all of its obligations under the chemical weapons convention ,” the spokesman said.” Under the chemical weapons convention, countries have the mechanism to consult but there is no requirement to do so .”

Quick guide

What is novichok?

Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970 s and 1980 s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to stimulate them, and their final structures are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries. By making the agents in secret, from unfamiliar chemicals, the Soviet Union aimed to fabricate the substances without being impeded.

” Much less is known about the novichoks than the other nerve agents ,” said Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds who investigated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988.” They are not widely used at all .”

The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.

And while the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert told the Guardian that the agents do not degrade fast in the environment and have “an additional toxicity”. ” That extra toxicity is not well understood, so I understand why people were asked to clean their clothes, even though it is it was present only in tracings ,” he said. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially medications called oximes.

The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought that they can be made in different forms, including a dust aerosol that would be easy to disperse.

The novichoks are known as binary agents because they become lethal only after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than the conventional nerve agents.

The fact that so little is known about them may explain why Porton Down scientists took several days to identify the compound used in the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. While laboratories around the world that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to build them.

Photograph: Matt Cardy/ Getty Images Europe

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May updated her cabinet on the unfolding investigation into the Salisbury attack, telling ministers there was ” no doubt of the severity” of what had taken place.

Should Russia devote no believable explanation, the UK is likely to expel a number of diplomats, more than the four who were told to leave the UK after the death of the former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko. The UK may also mount a covert cyber-offensive against the Kremlin.

Any direct action may be covered under article 51 of the UN charter, which permits legitimate self-defence, but Downing Street denied May was trying to win support to invoke section 5 of the Nato treaty on common defence.

Timeline

Poisoned umbrellas and polonium: Russian-linked UK deaths

September 1978

Georgi Markov

In one of the most chilling episodes of the cold war, the Bulgarian dissident was poisoned with a specially adapted umbrella on Waterloo Bridge. As he waited for a bus, Markov felt a sharp pricking in his leg. The opponent activist, who was an irritant to the communist government of Bulgaria, died 3 days later. A deadly pellet containing ricin was found in his skin. His unknown assassin is thought to have been from the secret services in Bulgaria.

November 2006

Alexander Litvinenko

The fatal poisoning of the former FSB officer triggered an international incident. Litvinenko fell ill after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium. He gratified his murderers in a bar of the Millennium hotel in Mayfair. The pair were Andrei Lugovoi- a former KGB officer turned tycoon, who is now a deputy in Russia’s state Duma- and Dmitry Kovtun, a childhood friend of Lugovoi’s from a Soviet military family. Putin denied all involvement and refused to extradite either of the killers.

March 2012

German Gorbuntsov

The exiled Russian banker survived an try on their own lives as he got out of a cab in east London. He was shot four times with a silenced pistol. He had been involved in a bitter conflict with two former business partners.

November 2012

Alexander Perepilichnyy

The businessman collapsed while running near his home in Surrey. Traces of a chemical that can be found in the poisonous plant gelsemium were later found in his stomach. Before his death, Perepilichnyy was helping a specialist investment firm uncover a $230 m Russian money-laundering operation, a pre-inquest hearing was told. Hermitage Capital Management claimed that Perepilichnyy could have been purposely killed for helping it uncover the scam involving Russian officials. He may have eaten a popular Russian dish containing the herb sorrel on the day of his death, which could have been poisoned.

March 2013

Boris Berezovsky

The exiled billionaire was discovered hanged in an apparent suicide after he had expended more than decade waging a high-profile media battle against his one-time protege Putin. A coroner recorded an open verdict after hearing conflicting expert evidence about the route he died. A pathologist who conducted a postmortem examination on the businessman’s body said he could not rule in murder.

December 2014

Scot Young

An associate of Berezovsky whom he helped to launder money, he was detected impaled on railings after he fell from a fourth-floor flat in central London. A coroner ruled that there was insufficient evidence of suicide. But Young, who was sent to prison in January 2013 for repeatedly refusing to reveal his finances during a divorce row, told his partner he was going to jump out of the window moments before he was found.

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The measures, which the Foreign office has previously defied, saying it already has the full confiscatory powers it needs, are highly symbolic, having been already adopted by the US, but pastors are likely to support a specific” Magnitsky clause” in the bill at report stage.

Ministers may also consider whether to direct the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, to investigate whether Russian media outlets, such as RT, are fit to hold broadcasting licences and whether senior officials could be told to boycott the football World Cup in Russia this summer.

Russia has denied being behind the attack on Skripal, a former double agent who came to the UK in a spy swap in 2010, and his daughter.

During an election campaign trip, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, dismissed questions about the Skripals when confronted by the BBC, saying:” Get to the bottom of things there, then we’ll discuss this .”

The UK’s national security council was expected to meet on Wednesday to discuss the Russian response before the council of ministers updates MPs. The home secretary, Amber Rudd, chaired a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall on Tuesday morning to discuss the latest developments.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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