'Skripal suspects' tell Russian media they visited Salisbury as tourists; Britain calls it 'lies'

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Police officers search Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, Britain, on July 19, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (AFP) - Two men accused by London of poisoning former spy Sergei Skripal told Russian media on Thursday (Sept 13) they visited the British city of Salisbury as tourists and denied having anything to do with the murder attempt.

Speaking in an interview with the head of the Kremlin-backed RT news network, the pair confirmed they were the men whose pictures British authorities released this month.

British security services had named the men as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, but said these were likely to be aliases.

In the 25-minute interview the two said these were their real names but said they did not work for Russia's military intelligence agency GRU, as Britain claims.

RT said the men sounded distressed and were sweating as they spoke.

The men seemed to be around 40 years old and wore almost identical dark blue jumpers. They looked well-built and Boshirov wore what looked like a red Kabbalah bracelet.

The TV station recorded the interview Wednesday evening, just hours after President Vladimir Putin said Russia had identified the men sought by Britain and urged them to address the media.

"They are civilians," Putin said, adding there was nothing criminal about them.

London believes that Putin personally sanctioned the attack.

'Obfuscation and lies'

Skripal's attempted assassination has drawn comparisons with the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko with highly radioactive polonium in London in 2006.

Russia has refused to extradite the two men Britain suspects of killing Litvinenko, and one of them, Andrei Lugovoi, went on to become a lawmaker.

Downing Street on Thursday once again accused Russia of "obfuscation and lies," while British police said it was aware of the statement "by two men" and refused further details.

"The lies and blatant fabrications in this interview given to a Russian state-sponsored TV station are an insult to the public's intelligence," Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said.

Petrov and Boshirov confirmed they arrived in Britain on March 2 and said they travelled to Salisbury the next day to see the sights.

They left after no more than an hour because of poor weather and heavy snow, but returned on March 4.

British authorities said the suspects travelled to Salisbury twice to get ready for the attack and then carry it out.

'Enjoying English architecture'

"Friends have been telling us for a long time we should visit this beautiful city," said the broad-shouldered Petrov.

"We went there to see Stonehenge, Old Sarum, but we couldn't do it because there was muddy slush everywhere," he added, referring to local landmarks.

Boshirov, who sported a goatee, denied they knew anything about Skripal or the location of his house.

"We walked around and enjoyed this English Gothic architecture," he said.

They denied trying to kill Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the Soviet-designed Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury on March 4.

British investigators say the poison was transported in a fake Nina Ricci perfume bottle and sprayed onto the handle of Skripal's door.

"Is it not silly for decent lads to have women's perfume?" Boshirov asked.

"The customs are checking everything. We didn't have it."

They said they were entrepreneurs but did not want to divulge details that could hurt their business which they said was linked to sports nutritional supplements.

They said that they had previously travelled to Europe for business and pleasure.

'Sent through meat grinders'

The pair complained their lives had become a "nightmare" and they could no longer watch the news and urged journalists to leave them alone.

"We're afraid of going out, we fear for ourselves, our lives and lives of our loved ones," Boshirov said. "We are tired."

When RT editor Margarita Simonyan asked the pair why they travelled together, implying they might be a gay couple, the men said their private lives were off limits to the media.

"This is not an interrogation," Boshirov said.

Simonyan said the men had contacted her on her cellphone.

Boshirov and Petrov said they called her because they needed protection and would like an apology from Britain.

The pair said that they had never dealt with the media before and if Putin had not urged them to speak out they would have recorded a video statement.

Social networks ran amok, with many deriding what they said was a flimsy attempt to cover the tracks.

"The Spy Who Went Home Because It Was Cold," quipped Twitter user Ben Stanley.

Others suggested that Moscow had essentially thrown its intelligence agents under the bus.

"Unlike the murderers of Litvinenko," wrote Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the US think-tank Atlantic Council, "these two men are sent through the meat grinders." "How can the GRU allow their obedient officers to be ridiculed like this?" he added.

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