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UK: Russia Stockpiling Nerve Agent     03/18 10:06

   LONDON (AP) -- Britain's foreign minister said Sunday that he has evidence 
Russia has been stockpiling a nerve agent in violation of international law 
"very likely for the purposes of assassination."

   Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the trail of blame for the poisoning of 
former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of 
Salisbury "leads inexorably to the Kremlin."

   His comment came after a Russian envoy suggested the toxin used to poison 
the Skripals could have come from a U.K. lab.

   Johnson told reporters that Britain has information that within the last 10 
years, "the Russian state has been engaged in investigating the delivery of 
such agents, Novichok agents ... very likely for the purposes of assassination."

   He said "they have been producing and stockpiling Novichok, contrary to what 
they have been saying."

   Johnson said he will brief European Union foreign ministers on the case 
Monday before meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

   He also said officials from the Netherlands-based Organization for the 
Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would arrive Monday in Britain to take samples 
of the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals.

   Britain says it is Novichok, a class of powerful nerve agent developed in 
the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War. Tests to independently verify 
the British findings are expected to take at least two weeks, Britain's Foreign 
Office said.

   Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow's EU ambassador, said Russia has no chemical 
weapons stockpiles and was not behind the poisoning.

   "Russia had nothing to do with it," Chizhov told the BBC.

   Chizhov pointed out that the U.K. chemical weapons research facility, Porton 
Down, is only eight miles (12 kilometers) from Salisbury, where Sergei Skripal 
--- a former Russian intelligence officer convicted in his home country of 
spying for Britain--- and his daughter were found on March 4. They remain in 
critical condition.

   Asked whether he was saying that Porton Down was responsible, Chizhov 
replied: "I don't know."

   The British government dismissed the ambassador's suggestion as "nonsense."

   Johnson said it was "not the response of a country that really believed 
itself to be innocent."

   Britain and Russia have each expelled 23 diplomats, broken off high-level 
contacts and taken other punitive steps in the escalating tit-for-tat dispute, 
which clouded the run-up to Sunday's presidential election in Russia. President 
Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win a fourth term.

   Western powers see the poisoning of the Skripals as the latest sign of 
increasingly aggressive Russian interference in foreign countries.

   Johnson said Britain's National Security Council will meet this week to 
discuss what further measures the country might take.

   He said these could include "defending ourselves against cyber-attack, (and) 
looking at any economic measures that could be taken against Russians who 
corruptly obtained their wealth."

   Opposition lawmakers are calling on the British government to clamp down on 
the illicitly gained money of wealthy Russians in Britain. Critics say U.K. 
authorities have been slow to investigate the origins of the wealth invested in 
London's financial district and property market.

   The spy dispute has sent U.K.-Russia relations to Cold War-levels of tension.

   Russia's ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, called for "cooler 
heads," telling the Mail on Sunday that the dispute is "escalating dangerously 
and out of proportion."

   But Russian presidential contender Ksenia Sobchak, a former TV star who is 
the only candidate to openly criticize Putin, said blame did not lie entirely 
with Britain.

   "We don't have any improvements, everything is only getting worse," she 
said. "And this will continue, because this is our foreign policy: very 
aggressive and very unpleasant."


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