The UK charged two Russian men for the Novichok nerve agent attack on a former spy and his daughter in the English city of Salsibury, accusing them of being Russian military intelligence officers.
British prosecutors issued arrest warrants on Wednesday for Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, charging them with conspiracy to murder and attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
Both were poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent – developed by the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s – in March but survived after spending weeks in hospital. The failed attack sparked an international diplomactic crisis with Russia being accused by several countries – allegations Moscow has repeatedly denied.
“Based on the body of intelligence, the government has concluded that the two individuals named by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are officers from the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU,” British Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament.
“This was also not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state,” she said.
May did not elaborate on the evidence cited.
Britain will present its evidence at a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday, a spokesman for May told reporters.
“We have called for a security council meeting to take place on Thursday so we can update the council on the progress of the Salisbury investigation,” he said.
The meeting was due to take place around 1530 GMT, he added.
British officials demanded at a meeting with Russia’s charge d’affaires on Wednesday that those responsible for the poisoning of the Skripals were brought to justice, the spokesperson said.
Russia on Wednesday questioned the charges.
“The names published by the media, like their photographs, mean nothing to us,” Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, told TASS news agency. “The Russian side has numerous questions for London.”
Zakharova demanded British authorities work with Moscow on the case. “Once again we call on the British side to move away from public accusations and informational manipulations towards practical collaboration of law enforcement agencies,” she said.
Prosecutor Sue Hemming said the UK will not ask Moscow to extradite the men because Russian law forbids extradition of the country’s citizens.
The poisoning of the Skripals earlier in March triggered a major diplomatic crisis between the United Kingdom and Russia, with the British government alleging Moscow was responsible for their attempted murder.
The United States also expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in response and Moscow reciprocated.
“This [charges] announcement will further worsen relations between the UK and Russia,” said Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from London.
Police said the suspects, both about 40-years old, flew from Moscow to London on Russian passports two days before the Skripals were poisoned on March 4.
Neil Basu, assistant commissioner of the UK’s Metropolitan Police service, said authorities linked the attack on the Skripals with the separate poisoningof two British citizens in Amesbury, a town about 12km from Salisbury.
“We know that Novichok was applied to the Skripals‘ front door in an area that is accessible to the public, which then endangered the lives of members of the public and emergency services responding,“ Basu said.
“We do not believe Dawn and Charley [the Amesbury victims] were deliberately targeted but became victims as a result of the recklessness in which such a toxic nerve agent was disposed of,” he said.
Matthew Wyman, a Russia specialist at UK-based Keele University, said May’s statement on the ongoing investigation had “moved the story forward quite a lot”.
“The level of evidence makes it very difficult for those who were sceptical about Russia’s involvement – or said that the British government had accused the Russians too early and overreacted – to sustain that position,” Wyman said.
“The theme that the Kremlin wants to get across to its own domestic audience is that Russia is being victimised and, therefore, ‘you need a strong leader like [President] Vladimir Putin’.”
Charles Shoebridge, a former UK counterterrorism intelligence officer, said the material produced had been of a “pretty basic nature”, however.
“Even now, with this new evidence produced today, the Russians are correct in saying that ‘you [Britain] don’t have the evidence to accuse the Russian state'” Shoebridge told Al Jazeera.
“After all, the British police today haven’t even established the real names of these people, they don’t actually know who they are, and yet the British government are claiming very certainly that these are Russians and agents of the GIU,” he said.
Police said earlier on Wednesday it was likely the suspects named were “travelling under aliases”.