British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks with the media as she arrives for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on Thursday, March 22, 2018. Leaders from the 28 European Union nations meet for a two-day summit to assess the state of Brexit negotiations, the prospect of a trade war with the United States and how to react to Russia following to the nerve agent attack in Britain. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

UK's May seeks united EU against Russia over spy poisoning

March 22, 2018 - 3:12 pm

BRUSSELS (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May tried to rally European Union leaders into a unified stance Thursday against Russia, saying the poisoning of a former spy on English soil shows that Moscow poses a long-term threat to the West.

But as Russia denied responsibility and slammed Britain's investigation into the nerve-agent attack, some European leaders urged caution while the investigation continues.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain unconscious in critical but stable condition after the March 4 nerve agent attack in the English city of Salisbury, which has sparked an east-west diplomatic crisis reminiscent of the Cold War.

Health officials said Thursday that Detective Sgt. Nick Bailey, a police officer who became seriously ill after responding to the nerve agent attack, has been released from a Salisbury hospital.

Britain blames Moscow for the attack, which it says used a military-grade, Soviet-developed nerve agent, and has called Russia a growing threat to Western democracies. Russia has fiercely denied allegations it poisoned Sergei Skripal — a former Russian intelligence officer convicted of spying for the U.K. — and his daughter.

On Thursday May accused Russia of staging "a brazen and reckless attack" and said "it is clear that the Russian threat doesn't respect borders."

She said "the incident in Salisbury was part of a pattern of Russian aggression against Europe and its near neighbors, from the western Balkans to the Middle East."

Britain and Russia have expelled 23 of each other's diplomats in a feud that shows no signs of cooling.

Russia's ambassador to the U.K., Alexander Yakovenko, said Thursday that his country "can't take British words for granted." He accused the U.K. of having a "bad record of violating international law and misleading the international community."

"History shows that British statements must be verified," he told reporters in London, demanding "full transparency of the investigation and full cooperation with Russia" and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Britain says it is complying with the international chemical-weapons watchdog. Experts from the OPCW have come to Britain to take samples of the nerve agent and examine blood from the unconscious Skripals.

May will urge the 27 other leaders over dinner at an EU summit in Brussels to make a strong statement against Russian President Vladimir Putin and to bolster European defenses against Kremlin cyber-meddling and other aggression.

EU foreign ministers have already expressed their "unqualified solidarity" with Britain. But European politicians and leaders vary in how far they are willing to go in blaming Putin's Kremlin.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose former Soviet state shares a border with Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, offered her full backing to Britain and said she was weighing whether to expel Russian diplomats from her country over the Salisbury attack.

German politician Manfred Weber, leader of the biggest group in the European Parliament, said Putin "wants to destabilize the European idea" and Europe must be strong, rather than naive.

But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was more cautious. He said "we have to express our solidarity to the U.K., to the British people, but at the same time we need to investigate."

Putin's office said Thursday that Tsipras had called Putin to congratulate him on his re-election and discuss issues, including the Salisbury poisoning.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said he wanted to hear what May had to say before making up his mind.

"First I listen, and then I take a decision," he said.

EU Council President Donald Tusk, who has said Europe must "reinforce our preparedness for future attacks," is seen by the U.K. as supportive. But British officials are irked that another top EU official, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, congratulated Putin on his victory in Russia's presidential election Sunday.

The Salisbury attack has sent relations between London and Moscow to Cold War-style lows.

On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was "emetic" — vomit-inducing — that Putin is rejoicing over hosting the World Cup soccer tournament this summer. Russia responded that Johnson was "poisoned with venom of malice and hate."

Johnson also said Russia's hosting of the tournament could be compared to the 1936 Olympics, which was used as a propaganda exercise by Nazi Germany. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called that comparison an "utterly disgusting statement that is unworthy of a foreign minister of any country."

Russia has repeatedly said the nerve agent used against the Skripals could have come from another country or a non-state group.

The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported Thursday that Leonid Rink, an expert involved in developing Novichok — the type of nerve agent used on the Skripals — had sold a few ampules of it decades ago to crime groups, including to Chechen mobsters.

Bailey, the U.K. police officer, said he had been overwhelmed by the support for him during a "completely surreal" experience.

"I recognize that 'normal' life for me will probably never be the same," Bailey said.

Appealing for privacy for his family, Bailey said "I want people to focus on the investigation — not the police officer who was unfortunate enough to be caught up in it."

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Kirka reported from London. Lorne Cook and Raf Casert in Brussels, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Greg Katz in London contributed to this story.

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