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Russia Denies Report Nerve Agent Used Against Ex-Spy Came From Volga Lab

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Russian officials are denying a British newspaper report that the nerve agent used against a former Russian spy in England came from a closed military facility on the Volga River.

Their denials came on April 6 after The Times newspaper cited British security sources as saying they believe the nerve agent, which the British government has identified as novichok, was manufactured and stored at a facility in the town of Shikhany, about 800 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

The closed town of Shikhany is the location of a branch of Russia's State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology.

Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told the newspaper that intelligence information he has seen clearly pointed to the Shikhany facility. The quantities of the novichok stored there are sufficient for attacks, but too small for military operations, he said.

Bretton-Gordon also told the newspaper that there was no evidence the novichok came from other laboratories in the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine or Uzbekistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the British newspaper report, claiming that it showed Britain is "desperately trying every day to find some new confirmation of their totally hopeless stance."

Russia has strongly denied any involvement in the poisonings, which prompted Britain and more than two dozen Western allies to expel over 150 Russian diplomatic staff, in a move reciprocated days later by Moscow.

Mikhail Babich, the Kremlin's envoy in the Volga region and former head of a state commission for chemical disarmament, told Russian news agencies that the Shikhany facility is now being used for work on agricultural chemicals such as pesticides and the disposal of toxic chemicals.

"There are no chemical weapons at those facilities. And in places where there were [chemical weapons], they have been fully destroyed," he told Interfax.

"All the bases where chemical weapons were stored are well-known. Shikhany is not one of them," he said.

Babich claimed that a facility in Gorny in the Saratov region once made and stored chemical weapons, but it was the first Russian facility to dispose of its stockpiles.

According to the Russian research institution's website, the Shikhany facility is now involved in work related to "ensuring the security" of the country and destruction of chemical weapons.

In September 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had destroyed its last chemical weapons.

Vil Mirzayanov, the scientist who first revealed the existence of novichok who now lives in the United States, has said that novichok, a group of nerve agents, was invented by scientists at Shikhany.

Mirzayanov also has said it is difficult to establish where a dose of the nerve agent might come from, but he said he understands the reasons Britain claims that Russia made the novichok used against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4.

"No country has as much experience in manufacturing novichok as the U.S.S.R. and then Russia," Mirzayanov told Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

One of the chemists who worked on the nerve agent, Vladimir Uglev, also told Novaya Gazeta that components to produce the weapon could be bought in several countries, so it would be difficult to pinpoint the country of origin.

After receiving critical care at a British hospital since being exposed to the nerve agent, both of the Skripals were reported to be "improving rapidly" on April 6.

Sergei Skripal was a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence agency when he was convicted of treason in 2006 on charges he spied for Britain.

Russia released him from prison in 2010, sending him to the West in a Cold War-style spy swap. He has lived in Britain since then.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, TASS, Interfax, and Reuters
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