Two Russians accused of a nerve agent attack in the UK have admitted they visited the city where the assault took place, but say the purpose of their brief trip was to visit its historic cathedral and not to poison a former double agent who happened to live there.
The men, who identified themselves as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, told the Kremlin-backed RT network that the purpose of their 6,000-mile, three-day trip from Moscow was to visit the "wonderful town," its fine cathedral with its 123-meter spire and famous clock, the "first of its kind anywhere in the world."
Far from being on a mission to kill Sergei Skripal, a former KGB agent who had ended up working for British intelligence, their intention was to visit historic sites such as the ancient stone circle at Stonehenge and the prehistoric settlement site of Old Sarum. Friends had been exhorting them for some time to make the trip, they said.
The peculiar interview with RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, in which the men appeared nervous and uncomfortable, came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the men should come forward and tell their story.
British authorities say Petrov and Boshirov are aliases, and them men are agents of the Russian security service, the GRU. But in the RT interview, the men insisted those were their real names, and that they were businessmen in the fitness industry, selling supplements and advising on nutrition.
They claimed to have had nothing to do with the attack on Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who were found slumped on a bench in the center of Salisbury on March 4 as the Russians were on a train back to London after their second visit to the city in two days. They might have been spotted on the same street as the Skripals' house, they said, but they had no idea the former spy lived there.
Their extraordinary account appears to indicate that Russia does not plan to deny the time-stamped CCTV footage produced by Britain that shows the pair at various locations between March 2-4, but to suggest it was misinterpreted and that there is an innocent explanation.
The UK government dismissed the pair's claims. "The lies and blatant fabrications in this interview given to a Russian state-sponsored TV station are an insult to the public's intelligence. More importantly they are deeply offensive to the victims and loved ones of this horrific attack," Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman told reporters.
"Sadly, it is what we have come to expect. The police have set out very clearly the evidence against these two men. They are wanted men and we have taken all steps to ensure they are apprehended and brought to justice in the UK if they ever again step foot outside Russia."
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ridiculed the Russians' claims, saying on Twitter: "The last time Russian military claimed to be on holiday was when they invaded Ukraine in 2014. Time to stop the fake TV shows -- the world has found Russia out on this."
Britain is not appealing to Russia for the extradition of the two men as Russian does not extradite its own nationals. However, prosecutors have obtained a European Arrest Warrant and police have asked Interpol to issue arrest warrants too.
British prosecutors said last week they had "sufficient evidence" to charge the two Russian nationals with attempted murder and conspiracy to murder in connection with the attack on March 4. Prosecutors say the Skripals came into contact with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent.
Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the Salisbury attack.
We came to see Stonehenge
London's Metropolitan Police last week gave a detailed account of the pair's movements during their trip to the UK, accompanied by CCTV stills that would have been difficult for the Russians to dispute.
But rather than being ruthless members of Russia's spy service, as Britain alleged, they were simply a pair of foreign tourists on a weekend trip away from Moscow.
Yes, they were the same two men shown on CCTV at London's Gatwick Airport at about 3 p.m. on Friday March 2, fresh from an Aeroflot flight from Moscow. But rather than being on a daring spy mission, they were merely friends on one of many trips they made to Europe together.
But they did not offer an explanation as to why, instead of traveling west out of London towards Salisbury, the pair headed in the opposite direction. Eschewing the wide range of tourist accommodations in Salisbury, they favored a basic hotel in the east end of London.
On Saturday March 3, UK police say, the men caught a train to Salisbury, arriving at about 2:25 p.m. They left the city less than two hours later to return to London. Police believe the journey was a reconnaissance trip.
Petrov did not dispute the timing. "We came there on March 2, then went to a railway station to see the timetable," Petrov said, according to RT's translation of the interview.
The pair returned the next day to complete their tour, they said, but were apparently thwarted by the inclement weather. "We arrived in Salisbury on March 3 and tried to walk through the town, but we lasted for only half an hour because it was covered in snow."
"Of course, we went there to see Stonehenge, Old Sarum, but we couldn't do it because there was muddy slush everywhere. The town was covered by this slush. We got wet, took the nearest train and came back (to London)."
A tweet by Stonehenge on March 3 shows the historic site was indeed closed on March 3 because of snow. But CCTV photographs of the men in Salisbury does not support the men's claims that the city was awash with slush.
The following day, they traveled again by train to Salisbury, arriving about 11:45 a.m. Just before midday, CCTV footage showed them in the vicinity of Sergei Skripal's home, where they are believed to have applied Novichok to the front door. Police say the footage was captured "moments before the attack."
The two men said they had indeed returned to Salisbury on Sunday, but it was to see the cathedral and Old Sarum because the weather had improved. Police say the men spent less than two hours there.
"We spent no more than an hour in Salisbury, mainly because of the lags between trains," Boshirov told RT. "Maybe we did [approach] Skripal's house, but we don't know where it is located."
At 1:05 p.m. they were caught on CCTV on Fisherton Street in Salisbury, heading back toward the train station. They boarded a train back to London at 1:50 p.m. The pair passed through passport control at London Heathrow Airport at about 7:30 p.m. before boarding a flight back to Moscow.
The weather wasn't much better there: Photographs from Moscow on March 4 show heavy snow and extensive slush on the city's streets.
Salisbury's Member of Parliament, John Glen, dismissed the statements made by Petrov and Boshirov, saying they "are not credible and don't match the widely accepted intelligence we have on these individuals."
Glen, a Conservative lawmaker, also tweeted that he was "delighted that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Borishov [sic] were able to see the world-class attractions that #Salisbury has to offer. But very strange to come all this way for just two days while carrying Novichok in their luggage."
'We didn't have perfume'
Speaking to RT, the two men denied having Novichok or any poison with them.
Asked by Simonyan whether they had the perfume bottle that had been shown as evidence by UK authorities, Boshirov said: "Is it silly for decent lads to have women's perfume? The customs are checking everything, they would have questions as to why men have women's perfume in their luggage. We didn't have it."
UK investigators have formally linked the attack on the Skripals to the June 30 poisoning of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, a couple living in Amesbury, near Salisbury. Sturgess died on July 8 after applying a substance to her wrists from a perfume bottle found by Rowley.
Police say it was a counterfeit bottle with a nozzle that had been specially adapted. They believe Sturgess and Rowley, who was taken seriously ill but survived, "became victims as a result of the recklessness in which such a toxic nerve agent was disposed of" by the suspects in the Skripal poisoning.
The two men told RT they were distressed about being named by the UK as Russian intelligence agents alleged to have been involved in the poisoning.
"We're afraid of going out, we fear for ourselves, our lives and lives of our loved ones," Boshirov said.
The RT interview came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia had identified the pair and found no evidence of criminal activities.
"We, of course, looked at what kind of people they are, and we know who they are, we found them," Putin told an audience at the Eastern Economic Forum in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok. "There is nothing unusual or criminal there, I assure you."
Putin appeared to suggest they should tell their story publicly. "Let them come out somewhere, to you in the media," he said, describing the men as "civilians."
Prime Minister May told the UK Parliament last week that Britain believes the two suspects to be GRU officers.
Russia has been accused by the UK of conducting a disinformation campaign over the attack on the Skripals. Officials from the UK Foreign Office say they have counted 37 different Russian narratives regarding the poisonings in Salisbury.
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