Moscow/London : Two men accused by London of poisoning former Moscow spy Sergei Skripal denied involvement in the murder attempt in a bizarre Russian media interview on Thursday that Britain dismissed as “an insult to the public’s intelligence”.
Speaking with the head of the Kremlin-backed RT news network, the pair confirmed they were the men whose pictures British authorities released this month, but insisted they were visiting the English city of Salisbury as tourists.
British security services had named the men as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, but said these were likely to be aliases.
In a 25-minute interview, the men said these were their real names but insisted they did not work for Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, as Britain claims. RT said the men sounded distressed and were sweating as they spoke.
Both appeared to be about 40 years old, and they wore almost identical dark blue jumpers. The men looked well-built and Boshirov wore what looked like a red Kabbalah bracelet.
The TV recorded the interview on Wednesday evening, just hours after President Putin said Russia had identified the men sought by Britain and urged the pair to address the media. “They are civilians,” Putin said, adding there was nothing criminal about them.
London believes Putin personally sanctioned the attack. The US is planning a new set of “very severe” sanctions on Russia over its alleged use of the Novichok nerve agent in the March 4 poisoning of Skripal and his daughter Yulia, assistant Secretary of State Manisha Singh told a congressional hearing on Thursday.
She said Russia had until November to allow onsite inspections of facilities linked to the potent poison, and to provide “verifiable” assurances that Novichok will not be used again.
Downing Street on Thursday called the RT interview “an insult to the public’s intelligence”. “More importantly they are deeply offensive to the victims and loved ones of this horrific attack. Sadly, it’s what we’ve come to expect,” PM Theresa May’s spokesman said.
Meanwhile, in Salisbury, the interview has prompted mockery and derision on social media — led by Britain’s foreign minister. “The last time Russian military claimed to be on holiday was when they invaded Ukraine in 2014,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted.
In the Daily Telegraph newspaper, cartoonist Matt depicted three men in classic spy outfits on a Moscow bridge with the caption: “You went to Salisbury cathedral and you didn’t bring us back a keyring or a bookmark?”