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Russian ex-spy, daughter exposed to nerve agent at home, police say

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP | British police officers on duty at a cordon leading to the home of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, southern England, on March 10, 2018.

British police said Wednesday that Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter may have first been exposed to a suspected nerve agent at their front door, where the highest concentration of the substance was found.


“At this point in our investigation, we believe the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent from their front door,” Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command.

“We are therefore focusing much of our efforts in and around their address.”

Police said while the investigation would focus on areas near the Skripal residence that the risk to the public remained low.

"Those living in the Skripals’ neighbourhood can expect to see officers carrying out searches as part of this but I want to reassure them that the risk remains low and our searches are precautionary," Haydon said.

>> Metropolitan Police statement on the Salisbury investigation

London's Metropolitan Police said they had "identified the highest concentration of the nerve agent, to date, as being on the front door of the address".

It is the first time police have indicated where the Skripals were likely poisoned. A variety of sites around Salisbury have also been searched, including a pub, a restaurant and a cemetery.

Diplomatic deep freeze

The suspected poisoning has plunged relations between Russian and the West to one of their lowest points since the Cold War. NATO joined two dozen governments around the world on Tuesday in expelling seven Russian staff and denying accreditation to three more in response to the nerve agent attack in Britain.

"This will send a clear message to Russia that there are costs and consequences for their unacceptable pattern of behaviour," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in announcing the move from Brussels.

Almost 150 Russian diplomats and suspected spies have been expelled since the attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury, including the 23 initially dispatched by Britain.

London and its allies have blamed Moscow, citing the use of a Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok, Russia's record of targeting dissidents and its history of aggression in recent years, from Crimea to cyber-attacks.

>> UK allies expel Russian diplomats in show of support

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the mass expulsions were "a blow from which Russian intelligence will need many years to recover".

It "could become a turning point", he wrote in The Times newspaper, adding: "The Western alliance took decisive action and Britain's partners came together against the Kremlin's reckless ambitions."

Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer imprisoned by Moscow for passing on information about Russian agents in various European countries, came to Britain in a 2010 spy swap.

Moscow has fiercely denied any involvement in his attempted murder, instead pointing the finger at London.

NATO: Expulsions will limit Russia's ability to collect intelligence

It responded to Britain's expulsions with its own as well as the closure of the British Council cultural organisation, and on Tuesday Russia promised it would hit back against the coordinated moves.

"We'll respond, have no doubt! No one wants to put up with such loutish behaviour and we won't," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on the sidelines of a conference in Uzbekistan.

Lavrov said the coordinated response was the result of "colossal pressure, colossal blackmail" from the United States.

Washington led the way in responding, ordering out 60 Russians in a new blow to US-Russia ties less than a week after President Donald Trump congratulated his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on his re-election.

Australia, Canada, Ukraine and 17 European Union states followed with smaller-scale expulsions, which have revived fears of a return to the Cold War.

"Relations between Russia and the West are entering a period of full Cold War," foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov wrote in the Vedomosti daily.

The Izvestia daily dismissed the expulsions as a "Russophobic flashmob".

But Western officials made it clear in announcing the expulsions that they share Britain's assessment that only the Kremlin could have been responsible.

The Skripals remain in a critical state in hospital, and Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday that "they may never fully recover".

May's spokesman said Tuesday that the "unprecedented" actions by allies were in part because they "recognise the threat that these Russian networks posed to the security of their own countries".

British officials say Russia has sought to divert attention by putting out more than a dozen explanations for the attack, the first using a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.

"There was a time when this tactic of sowing doubt might have been effective, but no one is fooled any more," Johnson wrote, adding that the expulsions were "a moment when the cynicism of the propaganda machine was exposed for all to see".

Washington's expulsions represented the largest ever of Russian or Soviet agents and came after US President Donald Trump's predecessor Barack Obama expelled 35 in late 2016 over alleged election meddling.

The Russian embassy in Washington responded by asking its Twitter followers to vote on which US consulate should be closed, listing those in Vladivostok, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg as options.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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