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story.lead_photo.caption Investigators in protective suits work Tuesday at the Maltings shopping center in Salisbury, England, near where a nerve agent was used to poison former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

LONDON -- Russia on Tuesday dismissed accusations of any involvement in the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter as "nonsense," saying it will only cooperate with a British investigation if it receives samples of the nerve agent believed to have been used.

Police, meanwhile, said the investigation of who poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, will last many weeks and that they are not ready to identify any persons of interest in the inquiry. The father and daughter remain in critical condition in a Salisbury hospital.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia's involvement is "highly likely," and she gave the country a deadline of midnight Tuesday to explain its actions in the case. She is reviewing a range of economic and diplomatic measures in retaliation for the attack with what she identified as the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.

U.S. and European officials were quick to offer words of support for Britain, which will need the backing of its allies if any new sanctions are to have any impact.

Her Downing Street office said she discussed the Salisbury incident with U.S. President Donald Trump and that the U.S. was "with the U.K. all the way" in agreeing that Russia "must provide unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used."

They also agreed on the need for "consequences" for those who use "heinous weapons in flagrant violation of international norms," the White House said.

While Trump acknowledged Russia was likely to blame for the attack, he -- like May's European allies -- has so far stopped short of promising to get involved, though he did say he would speak with May about the attack.

"It sounds to me like it was Russia based on all the evidence they have," Trump said as he left the White House on Tuesday morning. "We're going to be speaking with Theresa May today and as soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with that, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that his country's requests to see samples of the nerve agent have been turned down. He insisted that Russia is "not to blame" for the poisoning.

"We have already made a statement to say this is nonsense," he said. "We have nothing to do with this."

The Russian Embassy in London tweeted that it will not respond to the ultimatum without the samples.

Russian officials and media have responded with a variety of accusations against Britain in recent days, including suggestions that it was seeking to influence Sunday's election, which President Vladimir Putin is expected to win.

James Nixey, head of the Russia program at the Chatham House think-tank, said May's response must be more than symbolic.

"Will actions meet with responses which have real-world effects?" he said. "Or are we going to have more fudge?"

Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said financial sanctions would be key to a strong response.

"Given that the regime is built on money -- it's effectively a flow of money from the Russian people to Putin and from Putin to his acolytes -- money matters," he said.

"We have enormous amounts of control of a lot of people's assets through various means, and I think it's important we exercise that," Tugendhat said. "If you get the right people and you freeze their assets, it can make a lot of difference."

The cases of other Russians who have died under mysterious circumstances also are being raised. British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said police and the domestic security service will look into 14 deaths in Britain that might be linked to Russia.

"In the weeks to come, I will want to satisfy myself that the allegations are nothing more than that," Rudd said. "The police and MI5 agree and will assist in that endeavor."

BuzzFeed News reported in 2017 that 14 deaths in Britain and the U.S. dating to 2006 may have been linked to Russia. Among them are prominent Putin critics, including oligarch Boris Berezovsky and whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny.

The chief of the world's chemical weapons watchdog said that those responsible "must be held accountable."

In a speech Tuesday to the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called him Monday evening to inform him of the results of investigations.

"It is extremely worrying that chemical agents are still being used to harm people. Those found responsible for this use must be held accountable for their actions," he said.

Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was convicted of spying for Britain and then released in a spy swap. He had been living under his own name in Salisbury for eight years before the attack without attracting any public attention.

Police are appealing to the public to come forward if they saw Skripal and his daughter driving in his red BMW in the early afternoon of March 4 in the city 90 miles southwest of London.

New counterterrorism chief Neil Basu, who referred to Skripal as a British subject and his daughter as a Russian national, also said Salisbury residents would see much police activity in the coming days and that they should not be alarmed.

About 38 people have been seen by medics in connection with the case.

Information for this article was contributed by Mike Corder, Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka of The Associated Press; and by Kitty Donaldson, Toluse Olorunnipa, Henry Meyer, Edward Robinson, Robert Hutton, Ilya Arkhipov, Helene Fouquet, Arne Delfs and Henry Meyer of Bloomberg News.

Photo by AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Photo by PA via AP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks

A Section on 03/14/2018

Print Headline: Russia scoffs at poisoning claims

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