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British police to investigate potential Russian state involvement in up to 14 deaths in UK

Investigations by British police 'did not discover evidence of foul play' at time of deaths, Amber Rudd says 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 13 March 2018 12:46 GMT
Amber Rudd on Cobra meeting: Salisbury investigation is 'painstaking work'

Police and MI5 are probing allegations of Russian state involvement in up to 14 deaths in the UK in the wake of the nerve agent attack on a former spy.

Amber Rudd stressed that investigations and coroner’s inquests at the time “did not discover evidence of foul play” but the circumstances will now be looked at again.

“The Government was aware of allegations [of Russian state involvement], and takes seriously any suggestion that a foreign state has engaged in murder on UK soil,” she said in a letter to Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

“My immediate priority – and that of the police and other operational partners - is responding to the attempted murders in Salisbury, including decontamination, local reassurance and the criminal investigation itself. I do not want to distract from that focus.

“However, in the weeks to come, I will want to satisfy myself that the allegations are nothing more than that.”

Several MPs have raised the 14 deaths alleged to be suspicious by a Buzzfeed investigation published last year and demanded an inquiry.

They include the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whistle-blower Alexander Perepilichnyy, the “spy in the bag” Gareth Williams and a British scientist stabbed to death after being involved in the Alexander Litvinenko case.

No foul play was found in the deaths, and several were ruled to be suicide, but US intelligence agencies are said to view Mr Perepilichnyy’s death as an assassination.

Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium at a London hotel in 2006 (Reuters)

He had provided documents to prosecutors investigating alleged fraud by Russian officials and died while jogging in 2012.

Police said at the time they had found no evidence Mr Perepilichnyy’s was poisoned and the inquest into his death will resume next month.

Mr Berezovsky, a friend of Mr Litvinenko and vocal critic of Vladimir Putin, was found hanged in the bathroom of his Berkshire home in 2013.

Police said a post-mortem showed no sign of a violent struggle, and an inquest recorded an open verdict after hearing conflicting evidence.

Ms Cooper welcomed the Home Secretary’s decision to look at the cases and others where questions have been raised.

“Given the gravity of these issues, it is also right that the authorities should reassure us that they have looked at any further allegations or relevant evidence put forward in any other cases,” the Labour MPs added.

“The Government must satisfy itself that the correct finding was reached in each case and the public need to know that relevant questions about wider Russia links have been investigated and answered.”

She called for the Government to look to the UN Security Council for statements and resolutions over the attack on Mr Skripal and ensure “all states” cooperate with the criminal inquiry.

The Home Secretary said the committee will be informed of conclusions from the preliminary probe, which was made public after Theresa May named Russia as the likely culprit behind the attack in Salisbury.

The Prime Minister said a relatively new form of nerve agent called Novichok was used against former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

She described the chemical weapon as “military-grade” and said it had been developed by Russia, adding: “The Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act.”

Ms May said the Russian Government has a “record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations”, including against defectors like Mr Skripal who are viewed as legitimate targets.

“Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,” she told MPs on Monday.

“This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals.

“It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk, and we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”

Lord Blair, who was Metropolitan Police Commissioner when Mr Litvinenko was assassinated in 2006, supported the call for a fresh inquiry into the historical deaths.

“They’re all quite different and some of them have some very conflicting evidence,” he told BBC Radio 4 on Friday.

“It’s not the police ‘shutting down’ things, there’s a lot of stuff between the police and Crown Prosecution Service - you’ve got to have evidence.”

Sergei Lavrov said Russia was not to blame for the attack (EPA)

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Russia was “not to blame” for the attack in Salisbury and demanded access to samples of the nerve agent used.

Following a meeting of the Government's emergency Cobra committee, Ms Rudd said the investigation involving “detailed and painstaking work” by more than 250 police officers was progressing well.

"My priority is this incident, the investigation itself, so we get the information as quickly as possible, and also the safety and security of the people in the community,” she added.

"The Russians have started responding. The Prime Minister has been very clear that they have until midnight tonight to satisfy her requests. Until then we will wait and see what they have put forward.

"I know that international allies have begun to rally their support and make comments publicly but at the moment what we are doing is awaiting the Russian response before stepping up and responding as the Prime Minister has said we will.”

France, Germany and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have given their backing to Britain's conclusion that Russia was behind the use of Novichok, and are believed to be discussing possible sanctions.

Mr Tillerson’s statement was released less than 24 hours before he was fired by Donald Trump, who said he made the decision to oust him “by myself” and that they had differing opinions on policy areas including Iran.

The President said he was due to speak to Ms May on the phone later, adding: “It sounds to me like they believe it is Russia and I would certainly take that finding as fact.

“As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with that, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

The Prime Minister is to chair a National Security Council meeting to discuss the Kremlin's response on Wednesday, and will then inform the House of Commons over any measures to be taken.

Ms May told the regular weekly meeting of Cabinet at 10 Downing Street that there was “no doubt of the severity of what had taken place in Salisbury, which was a reckless, indiscriminate and despicable act”.

Her official spokesperson said there was "no requirement" to provide nerve agent samples to Russia under an international convention on chemical weapons.

Mr Skripal and his daughter remain in a critical but stable condition in intensive care, while a police officer who was exposed while responding to the incident also remains in hospital in a serious condition.

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