THE HAGUE (AFP) - Dutch intelligence services arrested two alleged Russian spies on suspicion of planning to hack a Swiss laboratory investigating the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal, reports and officials said on Friday (Sept 14).
The two agents, believed to be working for Russia's GRU military intelligence service, targeted the Spiez laboratory near Bern, Dutch-based NRC newspaper and Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger said.
They were arrested earlier this year and then expelled by the Netherlands, they said.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned the reports, saying he could not believe the arrests would have not have been picked up at the time by the media.
The two were detained "early this year" by Dutch military intelligence (MIVD) working together with several other countries, and then expelled from the Netherlands, the newspapers reported.
"The duo, according to sources within the investigation, carried equipment which they wanted to use to break into the computer network" of the Spiez laboratory.
At the time, Spiez was analysing data related to poison gas attacks in Syria, as well as the March 4 attack using the nerve agent Novichok on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, they reported.
The laboratory does analytical work for the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical arms watchdog.
Exact details of the alleged agents' arrest are unknown.
But on March 26, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that his cabinet had decided to expel "two Russian intelligence workers from the Russian embassy" as a result of the Skripal attack, without giving further details.
Swiss intelligence officials Friday confirmed they were aware of the incident.
'IN THE CROSSHAIRS'
"The case of the Russian spies discovered in The Hague and then expelled from The Hague is known to Swiss authorities," Isabelle Graber, spokeswoman for the Swiss intelligence services (SRC), told AFP.
The Swiss spy agency "actively participated in this operation in collaboration with its Dutch and British partners in prevention of illegal actions against critical Swiss infrastructure," she said.
The Spiez laboratory confirmed it had been targeted by hackers earlier this year, but had no comment on the specific claims about the Russians arrested by the Netherlands.
"We had indications in the past few months that we were in the crosshairs of some hacking attempts and took precautions and weren't compromised," Andreas Bucher, a spokesman for the Spiez lab, told AFP.
Bucher cited a case in June where hackers took documents from the lab's website and "distributed a very malicious malware virus" to affiliated agencies.
The same malware was used to attack the Winter Olympics in South Korea, he added.
Dutch intelligence services declined to comment when contacted by AFP, saying "we don't give information about operations".
Russia's SVR foreign intelligence service information head Sergei Ivanov also told the RIA Novosti state news agency that "the SVR does not comment on this information".
However, in April Lavrov accused the OPCW of "manipulating" the results of the Skripal probe by omitting findings from the Spiez laboratory.
According to the results from Spiez, the samples sent by the OPCW contained a nerve agent called "BZ" which was manufactured by the West, Lavrov said, citing "confidential information".
Commenting on the latest reports, Lavrov said "I cannot believe that such an event involving three European countries escaped the attention of the media," seemingly inferring that it did not happen.
Two men who were accused by Britain of being GRU agents involved in the murder attempt on Skripal insisted in an interview that they were merely tourists who had come to visit Salisbury cathedral.
But the two men in the interview, named by British security services as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, "were not the two agents intercepted" by the Netherlands, the papers said.