Theresa May has hit back at Vladimir Putin’s dismissal of the British Government’s claim that Russia was responsible for the Salisbury spy poisoning.
Mrs May’s comments followed strong words from Boris Johnson, who accused Russia of trying to conceal “the needle of truth in a haystack of lies” over the case – after Mr Putin dismissed the idea of Russian responsibility as “nonsense”.
Arriving for a meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels, the Foreign Secretary said Moscow’s denials over the incident were “increasingly absurd” as he accused the Kremlin of changing its story regarding the Novichok nerve agent Britain says was used in the attack.
The gathering of the EU Foreign Affairs Council declared its “unqualified solidarity” for the UK over the incident.
Mr Johnson said: “At one time they (Russia) say that they never made Novichok, and at another time they say they did make Novichok, but all the stocks have been destroyed … but some of them have mysteriously escaped to Sweden, or the Czech Republic, or Slovakia, or the United States, or even … the United Kingdom.
“I think what people can see is that this is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation.”
Mrs May, speaking during a visit to Birmingham, said: “I’m clear that what we have seen shows that there is no other conclusion but that the Russian state is culpable for what happened on the streets
Following reports around the possible exhumation of bodies of other Russians who died in suspicious circumstances, she added that it is a “matter for the police as to whether they feel that there
are any previous cases that need to be investigated further”.
In a joint statement, the Foreign Affairs Council said the European Union “takes extremely seriously the UK Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible”.
The statement added: “The Union calls on Russia to address urgently the questions raised by the UK and the international community and to provide immediate, full and complete disclosure of its Novichok programme to the OPCW.”
The move came as Russia’s Tass news agency reported the Kremlin is insisting the UK either backs up its “unfounded allegations” regarding Moscow’s involvement in the Salisbury attack, or apologises.
Tass quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “Sooner or later they will have to be responsible for these allegations: they will either have to provide some evidence or apologise.”
Mr Putin dismissed claims of Russia being behind the poisoning as “nonsense” as he was re-elected president.
Mr Putin, who secured a fourth term amid widespread claims of electoral fraud, said he learned about the “tragedy” from the media.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is that should it really be a warfare agent, people would have died instantly,” he said.
“It is an obvious fact. Russia does not possess such agents. We have destroyed all our chemical arsenals under control of international observers.”
He added: “We are ready for co-operation and said that immediately. We are ready to take part in all necessary probes but the will of the other side is needed for that. So far, we see none.”
The national security council will meet in the coming days to discuss Moscow’s tit-for-tat response to the UK’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.
Mr Johnson is also holding talks with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg on Monday.
Mr Skripal, a former double agent, and his daughter may have been exposed to a deadly nerve agent through his car’s ventilation system, US media has reported.
The pair are still fighting for their lives after being exposed to Novichok two weeks ago in the Wiltshire city.