Vladimir Putin has rejected British claims that Russia was behind the Salisbury spy poisoning, describing the accusations as ‘nonsense’.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia would have died instantly if they had been attacked with a nerve agent, the leader claimed while he celebrated being re-elected president for another six-year term.
President Putin, who secured a fourth term amid widespread claims of electoral fraud, said he learnt about the ‘tragedy’ from the media.
Denying Russia has the Novichok nerve agent used in the poisoning, Putin said: ‘Russia does not possess such agents.
‘We have destroyed all our chemical arsenals under control of international observers.
However, arriving at a meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Putin’s denials were ‘absurd’.
He said: ‘Today the technical experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are arriving in the UK to take the samples from Salisbury, and meantime the Russian denials grow increasingly absurd.
‘At one time they say that they never made Novichok, and at another time they say they did make Novichok, but all the stocks have been destroyed… but some of them have mysteriously escaped to Sweden, or the Czech Republic, or Slovakia, or the United States, or even… the United Kingdom.
‘I think what people can see is that this is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation.’
After securing re-election as Russian President, Putin said that ‘people would have died instantly’ if a warfare agent had been used.
He added: ‘We are ready for cooperation and said that immediately. We are ready to take part in all necessary probes but the will of the other side is needed for that. So far, we see none.’
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There had been no doubt that Putin would win in his fourth electoral contest; he faced seven minor candidates and his most prominent foe was blocked from the ballot.
With ballots from 80% of Russia’s precincts counted by early Monday, Mr Putin had amassed 76% of the vote.
Observers and individual voters reported widespread violations including ballot-box stuffing and forced voting, but the claims are unlikely to dilute the power of Russia’s longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin.
Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will arrive in the UK today to test the nerve-agent but the results will take at least two weeks.
The Foreign Secretary said Russia has investigated ways of delivering nerve agents for assassination over the last 10 years in a breach of international rules.
Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, suggested the Novichok may have come from the Porton Down laboratory, which is about eight miles from Salisbury.
Sweden and the Czech Republic denied Russian suggestions they may have been the source of the nerve agent.
The national security council will meet in the coming days to discuss Moscow’s tit-for-tat response to the UK’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.
Mr Skripal, a former double agent, and his daughter may have been exposed to a deadly nerve agent through his car’s ventilation system, US media has reported.
The pair are still fighting for their lives after being exposed to Novichok two weeks ago in the Wiltshire city.
Counter-terrorism police renewed their appeal for sightings of Mr Skripal’s burgundy BMW 320D saloon car, registration HD09 WAO, in Salisbury on the morning of Sunday 4 March.
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said: ‘We are learning more about Sergei and Yulia’s movements but we need to be clearer around their exact movements on the morning of the incident.’