Two Russian men accused by the United Kingdom of attempting to murder a former Russian double agent and his daughter have claimed they were in the country as tourists.
The men, who identified themselves as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, told Russian state television RT that they visited Salisbury in early March because they wanted to see the southern English town’s famous cathedral.
Britain’s government has accused Petrov and Boshirov of trying to kill the Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia. The officials also allege that the pair are military intelligence agents who were sent to the UK to poison the Skripals with the nerve agent Novichok.
The men denied the allegations and said they visited Salisbury on March 3 for tourism but stayed for 30 minutes only.
“We went there to see Stonehenge, Old Sarum. But we couldn’t do it because there was muddy slush everywhere. We got wet, took the train and came back [to London],” the pair told RT before adding that they returned to Salisbury the following day “to see the Old Sarum and the cathedral”.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the two men as “civilians”.
“We, of course, checked who these people are,” said Putin. “There is nothing special there, nothing criminal, I assure you. We’ll see in the near future.”
A spokesperson for the UK government said the two men who appeared on RT were the same men suspected of poisoning the Skripals.
“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.”
“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.”
A British government minister, who represents Salisbury, said on Twitter that the statements were not credible.
“Delighted that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Borishov were able to see the world-class attractions that #Salisbury has to offer. But very strange to come all this way for just two days while carrying Novichok in their luggage,” Tweeted John Glen, the Member of Parliament for Salisbury.
“Salisbury welcomes tourists from around the world and is very much open for business. But the Petrov/Borishov statements are not credible and don’t match the widely accepted intelligence we have on these individuals.”
On March 4, Skripal and his daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the town of Salisbury after being exposed to the nerve agent Novichok. They spent weeks in hospital before being discharged.
The failed attack triggered a major diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia, with the British government alleging Moscow was responsible for the attempted murder. Russia has repeatedly denied those claims.
UK prosecutors have said they have “sufficient evidence” to charge the pair but did not formally demand their extradition, as Russia does not extradite its citizens.