London (AFP) – The former Russian spy who was found slumped in an English city after being poisoned is no longer in critical condition and is “improving rapidly,” the hospital treating him said Friday.
It was the first official news on the condition of Sergei Skripal, 66, since he and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned on a bench on March 4 in Salisbury.
The affair has sparked a bitter diplomatic crisis between London and Moscow and prompted a wave of tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats between Russia and the West.
Skripal “is responding well to treatment, improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition,” said Salisbury District Hospital director Christine Blanshard.
As for his daughter, “her strength is growing daily and she can look forward to the day when she is well enough to leave the hospital”, Blanshard added.
Britain blames Russia for the poisoning of the Skripals — a charge the Kremlin furiously denies.
The first public comments by Yulia Skripal since the poisoning emerged on Thursday.
“My strength is growing daily,” she was quoted as saying in comments released by the police.
– Novichok’s disputed origins –
Moscow earlier Friday rejected a British news report that the nerve agent Britain says was used against Skripal came from a military facility on the Volga river.
On Thursday, The Times newspaper cited British security sources saying they believed the Novichok nerve agent was manufactured at a facility in the town of Shikhany southeast of Moscow.
“We are aware of claims of this sort by our British colleagues,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on a visit to Belarus.
“We will not trust in them, we would like to check them but they are not letting us do that.”
He accused London of trying “feverishly and convulsively to look for some new confirmation of their absolutely indefensible position.”
Russian officials said earlier Friday that no chemical weapons were ever stored at Shikhany, although they stopped short of specifically addressing the claim that Novichok was made there.
“This laboratory was never part of the scope of our work,” Mikhail Babich, the Kremlin’s envoy in the Volga region and former chairman of the state commission for chemical disarmament, told Interfax news agency.
“All the bases where chemical weapons were stored are well-known. Shikhany is not one of them.”
He said there used to be another such facility in the surrounding Saratov region but it was not located in Shikhany.
The Times report came after the British defence laboratory analysing the nerve agent said that it could not say whether the substance came from Russia.
Russian authorities have insisted the country never had any programmes to develop the chemical weapon.
Last month, Russian scientist Leonid Rink told state media he worked for 27 years at a state laboratory in Shikhany, where the development of Novichok formed the basis of his doctoral dissertation.
According to the website of the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, its branch in Shikhany is involved in work related to “ensuring the security” of the country and destruction of chemical weapons.
In September 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had destroyed its last chemical weapons.
– ‘You’ll be sorry’ –
At a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday, Russia deflected accusations of poisoning.
“Couldn’t you come up with a better fake story?” Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council.
“We have told our British colleagues that ‘you’re playing with fire and you’ll be sorry’.”
Russia called for UN Security Council talks after it failed to win diplomatic support for a joint probe of the poisoning at a meeting this week of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.