VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday Russia had found the two men accused by British prosecutors of trying to murder ex- Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain, but that there was nothing criminal about them.
British prosecutors last week identified two Russians they said were operating under aliases - Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov - whom they accused of trying to murder the Skripals with a military-grade nerve agent in England.
The duo had entered Britain on genuine passports, prosecutors said, while British Prime Minister Theresa May described them as military intelligence officers almost certainly acting on orders from high up in the Russian state.
Putin, speaking at an economic forum in the Russian Pacific port city of Vladivostok, said Russia had located the two men, but that there was nothing special or criminal about them.
“We of course checked who these people are. We know who they are, we found them. Well, I hope they will come out themselves and speak about themselves. It will be better for everyone,” said Putin, responding to a question about the case.
“There’s nothing special and criminal about it, I assure you. We’ll see soon... They are civilians of course. I would like to appeal to them so that they hear us today. They will come somewhere, to you, the mass media...”
Hours after Putin spoke, Russian state TV said one of the two men, Petrov, had told it by phone that he might comment on the case next week.
Asked about Putin’s remarks, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said Britain’s attempts to get an explanation from Russia over the poisoning of the Skripals had always been met with obfuscation and lies and that had not changed.
“These men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU ... The government has exposed the role of the GRU, its operatives and its methods, this position is supported by our international allies,” the spokesman told reporters.
“We have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March and they have replied with obfuscation and lies. I can see nothing to suggest that has changed.”
Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in the poisoning, casting it as part of a Western plot to smear Russia to justify more sanctions against it.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday that Putin had not spoken to the two accused men and refused to say how and by whom they had been found.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian leader had merely voiced a hope that they would appear publicly in the future. “Let’s wait for that moment,” Peskov told reporters.
Viktoria Skripal, the niece of Sergei Skripal, said last week she did not know anything about the two men. She told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday she now knew through sources she did not name that they were “simple people”.
“I knew from day one that this story about the involvement of Petrov and Boshirov was fake,” she said.
While one of the two accused, Boshirov, looked like a photograph released by Britain, the other, Petrov, looked nothing like the other photograph and had not been in Britain at the time of the attempted poisoning incident, she added.
Skripal - a former GRU colonel who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service - and his daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the English city of Salisbury in March. They spent weeks in hospital before being discharged.
Britain and dozens of other countries kicked out scores of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of the Skripals, and Moscow responded tit-for-tat with an identical number of expulsions. The affair worsened Russian relations with the West, already under strain over Ukraine, Syria and other issues.
The affair returned to the headlines in July when a woman near Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess, died and her partner Charlie Rowley fell ill after Rowley found a counterfeit bottle of Nina Ricci perfume containing the Novichok nerve agent and brought it home.
Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow, Elizabeth Piper in London Writing by Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth Editing by Mark Heinrich