THE two men suspected of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal have claimed on Russian television that they visited Salisbury to see the cathedral.
Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were identified last week by police investigating the poisoning. They were said to be agents of the Russian secret police, the GRU, travelling under assumed names.
The pair, interviewed on the Russian state television station RT on Wednesday, denied all the allegations. They had gone to Salisbury after being told by friends that they should visit the “wonderful” town, they said.
Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia were poisioned with the Novichok nerve agent in March (News, 12 March). Later, Dawn Sturgess was killed after accidentally coming into contact with the nerve agent, and her partner, Charlie Rowley, was left in a critical condition (News, 5 July).
In the RT interview, Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov accepted that they were the men identified on CCTV by British police, but said that they had travelled to Salisbury as tourists.
Mr Boshirov said: “There’s the famous Salisbury Cathedral, famous not just in Europe, but in the whole world. It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first one ever created in the world, which is still working.”
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday that it was a “pity” the pair didn’t spend longer in the city.
He said of their story: “It doesn’t really add up does it? What do I know? What I know Salisbury is a beautiful city that many people would spend longer in. It’s a pity they didn’t spend longer with their feet on the ground. There’s nothing to link them to the cathedral. . . but there’s no way of proving that.”
The pair explained the brevity of their visit: “The town was covered by this slush. We got wet, took the nearest train and came back.”
Mr Boshirov also said that he and Mr Petrov “maybe approached Skripal’s house, but we didn’t know where it was located”.
Mr Petrov told the RT editor Margarita Simonyan: “Well, we came there on 2 March, then went to a railway station to see the timetable. We arrived in Salisbury on 3 March 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.”
On Thursday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that the interview contained “lies and blatant fabrications”.
Bishop Holtam said that “it helps to have a story with more of a narrative that we can understand”, and that the people of Salisbury are feeling “more at ease” following the poisonings, after the “hammer blow” of Dawn Sturgess’s death.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said on Wednesday that the pair were innocent civilians, not assassins.
Last Sunday, Salisbury’s new Dean, the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, was installed. This week he described the cathedral as “a symbol of hope that is visible for miles around”.