Nerve agent used in Skripal attack ‘could have killed thousands’ say experts

GRUThe amount of poison smuggled into Britain for a near-fatal attack on Russian former spy Sergei Skripal was powerful enough to kill “thousands of people”, according those leading the investigation into the incident. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying for Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died in March of this year, after being poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Investigators from Britain and other Western countries have identified the poison used in the attack on the Skripals as novichok. The term (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a series of rarely used nerve agents that were developed the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s. It is believed that the poison was smuggled into the United Kingdom hidden inside an imitation perfume bottle, which had been fitted with a custom-made pump used to apply the poison. British authorities have determined that the assailants sprayed the poison on the doorway —including the handle— of the Skripals’ house in Salisbury. They then discarded the perfume bottle, containing the leftover novichok, in a garbage can before leaving the country in a hurry. The bottle was eventually recovered by Salisbury resident Charlie Rowley. His partner, Dawn Sturgess, died of poisoning after she applied some of the contents of the bottle on her wrists. British government scientists have since been examining the contents of the perfume bottle found inside Sturgess’ home.

On Thursday, BBC Television’s Panorama investigative program aired an episode entitled “Salisbury Nerve Agent Attack: The Inside Story”. Among those interviewed was Dean Haydon, a British Deputy Assistant Commissioner who is leading the ongoing investigation into the Salisbury attack. He told Panorama that “a significant amount” of novichuk was left behind by the assailants inside the discarded perfume bottle. The amount of poison in the discarded bottle could have been used to kill “thousands”, he said, adding that the way it was applied to the Skripals’ home was “completely reckless”. The BBC program’s producers also spoke to a British government chemical weapons scientist, identified only as “Tim”, who is credited with having identified the substance used on the Skripals. He told the program that less than 100g of novichuk was used against the Skripals, leaving the vast majority of the nerve agent inside the bottle. Given that novichuk is “one of the deadliest substances known”, which has a “unique ability to poison individuals at very low concentrations”, the scientist said he was shocked by the amount of poison that was smuggled into Britain by the assailants.

The assailants have been identified by British intelligence as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin (cover name “Alexander Petrov”) and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga (cover name “Ruslan Boshirov”). Both men are said to be employees of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the GRU. Moscow denies that it had any role in the attack on the Skripals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 November 2018 | Permalink

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Prominent Putin critic poisoned with unknown substance, say doctors

Vladimir Kara-MurzaA prominent member of the Russian opposition and vocal critic of the Kremlin, is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital as a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, is a senior figure in the Open Russia Foundation, a political pressure group founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky, an ultra-wealthy Russian businessman who was once estimated to be worth over $15 billion, has been living in Switzerland since 2013. Immediately prior to that, he served a 10-year prison sentence in Russia for tax evasion. In 2013, Kara-Murza was a member of a network of Putin critics who helped organize opposition protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He also co-authored a number of reports accusing the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin of corruption.

For several years now, Kara-Murza, his wife and three young children have been living in the United States. But he frequently travels back to Russia to meet with opposition activists and other organizers. For the past few weeks, Kara-Murza had been traveling in his homeland to help launch a new documentary film about the life and death of scientist and opposition figure Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov served as Russia’s deputy prime minister for a few months in 1998, under Russian President Boris Yeltsin. After 2000, he became a vocal critic of the Putin administration. In late February 2015, Nemtsov was shot four times in the back and killed while walking with his girlfriend near Moscow’s Red Square. Opposition groups, including members of the Open Russia Foundation, claim that his murder was organized by the Kremlin.

Kara-Murza’s wife, Yevgeniya, said yesterday that her husband woke up suddenly in the early hours of last Thursday, finding it difficult to breathe. He was rushed to a Moscow hospital where he has been under a medically induced coma since Tuesday. His family said that, while visiting Russia in 2015, Kara-Murza was hospitalized with similar symptoms, and was diagnosed with “kidney failure in connection with poisoning”. He later claimed that he survived an attempt on his life by people in power who wanted to silence him. This time, said Kara-Murza’s wife, the family has sent blood samples to specialists in Israel and France, hoping that the poison that is allegedly inside his body can be identified.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 February 2017 | Permalink

Did Pakistan poison the CIA station chief in Islamabad?

US embassy Islamabad PakistanA leading article in The Washington Post suggests that the United States Central Intelligence Agency suspected that its most senior officer in Pakistan was poisoned by the host country’s intelligence services, in an attempt to kill him. The CIA pulled its station chief from Islamabad in the summer of 2011, two months after Operation NEPTUNE SPEAR, which saw the killing in Abbottabad of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The CIA official, who has since been identified as Mark Kelton, acted as the senior US intelligence representative in the Asian country. He had assumed the post, which was supposed to last at least two years, only seven months earlier. His abrupt removal raised questions, which were informally answered by Langley. There were rumors that Kelton’s return to the US was health-related, but that the decision to replace him was also affected by his extremely poor relations with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan’s powerful spy service.

On Thursday, however, The Washington Post’s Greg Miller said in a leading article that Kelton’s illness, which led to his replacement, had been so violent that it led him and others in the CIA to suspect that he had been poisoned. Prior to replacing him, the Agency had repeatedly flown the official back to the US for medical treatment, which proved fruitless. Eventually, some at Langley began to examine the possibility that the Pakistanis had poisoned Kelton, at a time when relations between the CIA and the ISI had sunk to unprecedented lows. Miller cites unnamed US intelligence officials who confirmed that the CIA had strong suspicions that Kelton had been deliberately poisoned. Even if the suspicions were groundless, said Miller, “the idea that the CIA and its station chief considered the ISI capable of such an act suggests that the breakdown in trust [between the two agencies] was even worse than widely assumed”.

Kelton has since recovered and assumed the post of deputy director for counterintelligence at the CIA before retiring from the Agency. The 59-year-old has since revealed his CIA background and even spoke with Miller on the phone as the Post correspondent was preparing his story. Although he declined Miller’s request for a detailed interview, the former CIA Islamabad station chief said that the initial suspicions about his poisoning “did not originate with” him. He added, however, that he would “rather let that whole episode lie”. The CIA told Miller that it had not uncovered any concrete evidence that the elements in the Pakistani government had poisoned Kelton. The embassy of Pakistan in Washington told The Washington Post that Miller’s story was “fictional and not worthy of comment”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 May 2016 | Permalink

Forensic experts to probe alleged poisoning of Nobel Laureate poet Neruda

Pablo NerudaTwo teams of international experts will examine the exhumed remains of Chilean Nobel Laureate poet Pablo Neruda, who some say was deliberately injected with poison by the Chilean intelligence services. The literary icon died on September 23, 1973, less than two weeks after a coup d’état, led by General Augusto Pinochet, toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a Marxist who was a close friend of Neruda. The death of the internationally acclaimed poet, who was 69 at the time, was officially attributed to prostate cancer and the effects of acute mental stress caused by the military coup. In 2013, however, an official investigation was launched into Neruda’s death following allegations that he had been murdered.

The investigation was sparked by comments made by Neruda’s personal driver, Manuel Araya, who said that the poet had been deliberately injected with poison while receiving treatment for cancer at the Clinica Santa Maria in Chilean capital Santiago. According to Araya, General Pinochet ordered Neruda’s assassination after he was told that the poet was preparing to seek political asylum in Mexico. The Chilean dictatorship allegedly feared that Neruda would seek to form a government-in-exile and oppose the regime of General Pinochet. Last year, Spanish newspaper El País said it had been given access to a report prepared by Chile’s Ministry of the Interior, which allegedly argues that it was unlikely that Neruda’s death was the “consequence of his prostate cancer”. According to the paper, the document states that it was “manifestly possible and highly probable” that the poet’s death was the outcome of “direct intervention by third parties”. The report also explains that Neruda’s alleged murder resulted from a fast-acting substance that was injected into his body or entered it orally.

On Wednesday, it was announced that two teams of genomics and forensic experts, one in Canada and one in Denmark, will examine Neruda’s bones and teeth in an effort to extract fragments of bacterial DNA. According to reports, the experts hope that the extracted DNA will provide them with genomic data that can help identify pathogenic bacteria. That, in turn, could help establish a possible cause of death. The two teams are based at the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University in Canada and the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 February 2016 | Permalink | News tip: R.W.

Ex-KGB spy accused of Litvinenko murder says MI6 tried to recruit him

Andrei Lugovoi A Russian former intelligence officer, who is accused by the British government of having killed another Russian former spy in London, said the British intelligence services tried to recruit him in 2006. British government prosecutors have charged Andrei Lugovoi with the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, a former employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor agencies, the FSB. In 2006, Litvinenko died in London, where he had defected with his family in 2000, following exposure to the highly radioactive substance Polonium-210. In July of 2007, the British government charged Lugovoi and another Russian, Dmitri Kovtun, with the murder of Litvinenko, and expelled four Russian diplomats from London. Last week, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the former KGB spy’s death, the British government took the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, to file an official complaint about Moscow’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun to the United Kingdom.

But Lugovoi, who is now a member of the Russian Duma, denies any involvement in Litvinenko’s murder and has dismissed as “completely absurd” the inquest’s conclusion that he was behind the killing. Speaking last week on Russian television, Lugovoi reiterated his criticism of the report and claimed British intelligence had tried to recruit him shortly before Litvinenko’s murder. The Duma member was a guest on This Evening, a high-profile talk show on Russia’s Channel 1 television, hosted by Vladimir Sovolyev, a popular television personality and talk show host. Lugovoi told Sovolyev that he found it interesting that the British government “was always happy to grant me visas” to travel to the UK, even though London knew he was a former KGB spy. “Then, in May of 2006”, approximately six months before Litvinenko was killed, “MI6 tried to recruit me”, he added. He was referring to the Secret Intelligence Service, Britain’s primary external intelligence organization.

The former KGB officer then reiterated his longstanding argument that he and Kovtun were also poisoned by the same Polonium given to Litvinenko by the person or persons who killed him. He told Sovolyev that, after meeting Litvinenko in London a few days before his death, he fell violently ill and had to spend several months in a Russian hospital recovering from radiation poisoning. Lugovoi also hinted that the British government may have killed Litvinenko for reasons of its own. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on Lugovoi’s statement, but said in a press release that London’s accusations against the two former spies were “politically motivated” and “non-transparent”. The UK maintains that Lugovoi and Kovtun fell ill because they did not handle the Polonium given to them by their handlers with the appropriate amount of care.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 January 2016 | Permalink

Britain summons Russian envoy to protest killing of ex-KGB spy in London

Sir Robert OwenThe British government has taken the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the death of a former KGB officer who is believed to have been killed on the orders of Moscow. Alexander Litvinenko, an employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor organizations, the FSB, defected with his family to the United Kingdom in 2000. But in 2006, he died of radioactive poisoning after meeting two former KGB/FSB colleagues, Dmitri Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, in London. A public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, ordered by the British state, concluded this week after six months of deliberations involving sworn testimony by over 60 witnesses, including British intelligence officers who worked closely with Litvinenko.

In releasing the inquiry report, the presiding judge, Sir Robert Owen, said it was clear that Kovtun and Lugovoi “were acting on behalf of someone else” when they killed their former colleague in London. He added that members of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including the Russian president himself, had “motives for taking action” against Litvinenko, “including killing him”. Moreover, President Putin’s systematic protection of Lugovoi, the primary suspect in the case, whom Russia currently refuses to extradite to the UK, “suggest a level of approval for the killing” at the highest levels of the Russian government, said Sir Robert.

Speaking during a session in the British House of Commons on Thursday, the UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May described Litvinenko’s killing as “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilized behavior”. On the same day, David Lidington, a Minister of state at the British Foreign Office, who currently serves as the country’s Minister for Europe, summoned the Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, to file an official protest against Litvinenko’s murder. Meanwhile, the British state has moved to freeze the assets of the two main suspects in the case, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said further punitive measures against Russia were possible. Speaking to reporters in Davos, Switzerland, where he is participating in the World Economic Forum, Cameron said Britain wanted to have “some sort of relationship” with the Kremlin in light of the situation in Syria. But Whitehall would “look very carefully at the report and all the detail” and would proceed “with clear eyes and a very cold heart”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2016 | Permalink

Long-awaited British report to blame Kremlin for ex-KGB spy’s death

Alexander LitvinenkoThe long-awaited concluding report of a public inquiry into the death of a former Soviet spy in London in 2006, is expected to finger the Russian state as the perpetrator of the murder. Alexander Litvinenko was an employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor organizations, the FSB, until 2000, when he defected with his family to the United Kingdom. He soon became known as a vocal critic of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2006, Litvinenko came down with radioactive poisoning after meeting two former KGB/FSB colleagues, Dmitri Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, at a London restaurant. In July of 2007, after establishing the cause of Litvinenko’s death, which is attributed to the highly radioactive substance Polonium-210, the British government officially charged the two Russians with murder and issued international warrants for their arrest. Whitehall also announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from London. The episode, which was the first public expulsion of Russian envoys from Britain since end of the Cold War, is often cited as marking the beginning of the worsening of relations between the West and post-Soviet Russia.

A public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, ordered by the British state, has taken over six months to conclude. In the process, the judge in charge, Sir Robert Owen, has heard from 62 witnesses. The latter include members of the Secret Intelligence Service, known commonly as MI6, for which the late Russian former spy worked after his arrival in Britain. The release of the inquiry’s report is expected this week. But British media have quoted unnamed “government sources” as saying that the long-awaited document will point to the Russian state as the instigator, planner and execution of Litvinenko’s death. One source was quoted as saying that the report will identify “a clear line of command” and that “it will be very clear that the orders came from the Kremlin”.

It is not believed, however, that the report will point to Russian President Vladimir Putin as having had a role in the former spy’s murder. Nevertheless, there is speculation in London and Moscow about the British government’s possible response to the inquiry’s report. One unnamed source told the British press that the report’s findings would place Whitehall “in a difficult position”, given London’s current cooperation with Russia in Syria. However, the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to face renewed pressure from the public and from opposition parties to take action against Russia, should it be confirmed this week that the Kremlin was indeed behind Litvinenko’s killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2016 | Permalink