Czech president asks spy service to see if Novichok was produced locally

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech President Milos Zeman has ordered the country’s counter-intelligence service to see if the type of nerve agent used in an attack in Britain could have been made in the Czech Republic.

FILE PHOTO: Re-elected Czech President Milos Zeman attends the inauguration ceremony at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Zeman’s request followed strong government rebuttals of Russian allegations that the nerve agent could have come from the Czech Republic, among other countries.

The Czech Republic joined the United States and governments across Europe to expel more than 100 Russian diplomats on Monday in response to the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain.

Moscow has denied being behind the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury on March 4. Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia remain critically ill in hospital.

Zeman’s request to look into whether the Czechs produced the nerve agent Novichok was announced by his spokesman after the president met the head of the BIS counter-intelligence service.

“The president has tasked the BIS to find out whether or not the nerve gas ‘Novichok’ was developed or stored on the Czech Republic’s territory, be it at industrial or scientific facilities,” Zeman’s spokesman said in a statement.

The spokesman later said on Twitter, in reaction to a news website headline that interpreted the decision as siding with Russia: “Fake news. The tasking of BIS is a reaction to Russia’s repeated allegations against the Czech Republic.”

Zeman has often taken pro-Russian positions in the past.

Under the Czech constitution, the government is in charge of foreign policy but the president wields certain powers as well as the ability to ask the BIS to carry out tasks.

Commenting on the expulsion of three Russian diplomats, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said it was in solidarity with Britain and he denied Moscow’s suggestion the nerve agent could have originated in the Czech Republic.

“The Russians breached all boundaries when they said the poisonous substance Novichok may have come from us, that is a total lie, we have rejected this assertion right from the start when the Russian side put it out.”

The government’s spokeswoman had no immediate comment on Zeman’s request for the counter-intelligence service to investigate the claim.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Kahn and Robin Pomeroy