MOSCOW -- The two Russian men charged in Britain in the poisoning of a former Russian spy with a deadly nerve agent appeared on Kremlin-funded television Thursday, denying their involvement in the attack and saying that their appearance in the English city of Salisbury was merely an "incredible, fatal coincidence."
Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov made their first public appearance in an interview with the RT channel, saying that they had visited Salisbury as tourists to see its famous cathedral.
"Our friends have been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town," Petrov said, while Boshirov added that they specifically wanted to see the cathedral's famous spire and clock.
Britain last week charged Boshirov and Petrov in absentia, alleging they were agents of Russia's military intelligence agency known as the GRU who were dispatched to Salisbury, about 2 hours' drive southwest of London, to poison former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent novichok.
British police have released closed-circuit television footage and photographs showing the two men walking in Skripal's neighborhood on March 4, the day of the attack. They were also pictured visiting the city a day earlier. Britain said the attack was almost certainly approved "at a senior level of the Russian state," an allegation that Moscow has denied.
Both men on Thursday denied that they are GRU agents or that they were in possession of the Soviet-made nerve agent.
"The whole situation is an incredible, fatal coincidence, and that's that," Petrov said. "What is our fault?"
They claimed they did not know who Skripal was or where he lived.
Both men looked composed during the interview, and confidently recited details about Salisbury's tourist attractions, including the height of the cathedral's spire.
The two men, who appeared to be about 40, said they worked in the nutrient supplements business. They denied that they carried a bottle of women's perfume where British authorities found traces of novichok.
"The customs are checking everything," Boshirov said. "They would have questions as to why men have women's perfume in their luggage. We didn't have it."
The British government on Thursday issued a statement after the interview was released, reiterating their claim that Russian authorities were lying about the case.
"The government is clear these men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service -- the GRU -- who used a devastatingly toxic, illegal chemical weapon on the streets of our country," the statement said. "We have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March. Today -- just as we have seen throughout -- they have responded with obfuscation and lies."
Replying to the interviewer's question why the pair went to Salisbury for two days in a row, Boshirov said that when they first got to the town it was snowy and they got wet "up to the knee" so they decided to take the train back the next day.
The men's surprise public appearance Thursday came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russian authorities know the identities of the two men, but insisted that they are civilians and there is "nothing criminal" about them. He called on them to contact the media.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is working on a second, more punishing round of sanctions against Russia to be imposed in November for the nerve-agent attack, a State Department official said.
"We plan to impose a very severe second round of sanctions," Manisha Singh, the assistant secretary for the department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, told Congress on Thursday. She said it will include "banking sanctions, prohibition on procurement of defense articles, aid money -- it's a laundry list of items that will penalize the Russian government."
Russia hasn't allowed on-site inspections or provided the U.S. with "verifiable reassurance" that it won't use banned chemical weapons again, Singh said.
Separately, Pyotr Verzilov, a Pussy Riot activist, has been hospitalized in Moscow in what the protest group suspects was a poisoning attack, according to news media reports.
Veronika Nikulshina, a fellow group member, told the Meduza newspaper that Verzilov lost his sight, speech and mobility. He was being treated Wednesday in the toxicology wing of a hospital, she said.
The activist group is widely known as a punk band unsparing in its criticism of Putin and the Russian government.
Information for this article was contributed by Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jill Lawless of The Associated Press; by Saleha Mohsin of Bloomberg News; and by Daniel Victor of The New York Times.
A Section on 09/14/2018
Print Headline: Tourists in U.K, 2 Russian suspects say