Embassy issues provocative tweet as Cobra meeting hears that case involves 250 counter-terror police and 200 witnesses

Russia stepped up its war of words with Britain on Saturday as its embassy in London linked the attempted slaying of double agent Sergei Skripal to the deaths of three exiled foes of the Kremlin.

The provocative move came as the home secretary, Amber Rudd, chaired a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee into how the investigation into the attack on Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, was progressing.

The committee heard that 250 counter-terrorism police have identified more than 240 witnesses and are looking at more than 200 pieces of evidence.

Earlier in the working day, in a typically sarcastic observation, the Russian embassy tweeted:” What a coincidence! Both Litvinenko and Skripal worked for MI6. Berezovsky and Perepilichny were linked to UK special services. Investigation details categorized on grounds of national security .”

Alexander Litvinenko was a former policeman with Russia’s FSB security service who was poisoned with polonium in 2006. An official report indicated the assassination had been carried out by two Russian agents with a “strong possibility” that they were acting on behalf of the FSB.

Boris Berezovsky was the exiled Russian oligarch and chief critic of Putin who was detected hanged in 2013. A coroner recorded an open verdict.

” All those who knew him believe it is difficult to think he would have committed suicide ,” told Yuri Felshtinsky, who co-wrote a book with Litvinenko, Blowing Up Russia.

Alexander Perepilichny collapsed after jogging near his home in Surrey in 2012. He had been helping a Swiss investigation into a Russian money-laundering scheme linked to the Kremlin, and there is speculation that he might have been murdered.

Berezovsky and Litvinenko are alleged to have introduced ratings of Russian agents to the former MI6 agent who turned Skripal and is understood to still satisfy him regularly.

The explicit linking of the Salisbury attack to three critics of the Kremlin, all of whom are dead, represents a further low phase in relations between London and Moscow.


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 protester was poisoned with a specially adapted umbrella on Waterloo Bridge. As he waited for a bus, Markov felt a sharp prick in his leg. The opposition activist, who was an irritant to the communist government of Bulgaria, succumbed three 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 sparked 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 businessman, 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 attempt on his life as he got out of a taxi in east London. He was shot four times with a silenced pistol. He had been involved in a bitter dispute 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 belly. Before his death, Perepilichnyy was helping a specialist investment firm uncover a $230 m Russian money-laundering operation, a pre-inquest hearing was say. Hermitage Capital Management claimed that Perepilichnyy could have been deliberately 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 seen hanged in an apparent suicide after he had spent 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 proof about the style he died. A pathologist who conducted a postmortem examination on the businessman’s body said he could not rule out murder.

December 2014

Scot Young

An associate of Berezovsky whom he helped to launder money, he was procured 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 disclose 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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It came after Moscow officials described the suggestions that the Skripals could have been targeted by Kremlin hitmen as part of an attempt to demonise Russia.” This is pure propaganda, and the pure whipping-up of hysterical outbursts and hysteria ,” told Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister.

However, Sir Andrew Wood, the British diplomat to Russia from 1995 to 2000, said that he had no doubt that the attack, using a nerve agent available only to a few countries, had been sanctioned from within Russia, although probably not immediately by Putin.

” It’s a terrible thing to have done ,” Wood told.” It’s typical of the state that Russia is in and it’s very hard to see what profit they can get from this. It advertises the fact because this is vindictive and dedicated to seeking retaliation .”

He called for the British government to seek a coordinated reaction.” We should look at how we do or don’t implement the Magnitsky Act, talk to our transatlantic allies and those in Europe – it’s just as much an attack on them as us .”

The Magnitsky Act- named after a lawyer turned whistleblower who died in prison after helping expose the same money-laundering scheme identified by Perepilichnyy- would give the UK government the human rights of freeze assets and prevent the entry of people associated with human rights abuses and corruption.

Westminster is understood to think that the UK gains few benefits from good relations with Putin, and Boris Johnson’s visit to Moscow was not deemed a success.

In Salisbury, police and military personnel continued to gather forensic proof at several sites visited by the Skripals and removed a couple of ambulances and a police car. Forensic squads also continued to examine the tombs of Skripal’s son and spouse. It is understood that there has been no application to the Ministry of Justice to have the graves exhumed, indicating that either police do not have anything to substantiate suggestions that either succumbed by pollute entails or they believe such a move would not currently help their investigation.

Salisbury town centre – the key sites

Late on Saturday, the BBC reported that it understood traces of the nerve agent use against the Skripals had been discovered at the Zizzi restaurant where they ate just hours before collapsing on a park bench in Salisbury. The report also said nobody else in the restaurant at the time would have been in any threat.

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan police, which is leading the investigation, refused to comment on the report.

DS Nick Bailey, the officer taken ill after attending the scene and who is recovering, released a statement earlier in the day saying ” he does not consider himself a hero” and was ” simply doing his task “.

Bailey visited the Salisbury home of Skripal after he and Yulia were found slumped on a bench in the city centre. Examiners want to know if he was contaminated during that visit, or whether he visited the scene where they were found and was poisoned there or by items there. Sources say that it is believed to be more likely that Bailey became contaminated at the home.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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