Russian president Vladimir Putin has escalated the war of words over the Salisbury nerve agent attack by claiming there is “nothing criminal” about Britain’s prime suspects.
Police and prosecutors last week said Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov had been identified as members of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.
Authorities believe the pair smeared the highly toxic chemical Novichok on a door handle at the Wiltshire home of former GRU officer Sergei Skripal, leaving he and his daughter Yulia critically ill in March.
The allegations are staunchly denied by the Kremlin and on Wednesday Mr Putin said the men had been discounted as members of his shadowy security network.
In an address to the Easter Economic Forum in Vladivostok, he said: “Of course, we looked who these people are. We know who they are, we have found them already.”
He added: “There is nothing special and nothing criminal about it, I”m telling you.”
Questioned on whether the pair were civilians, he replied: “Of course they are civilians.”
The Russian president also made the bizarre move of asking Petrov and Boshirov to appear in public to dispel doubt about their true identity.
“I hope that they will emerge (in public) themselves and tell about themselves. It will be better for everyone,” he said on Wednesday.
Mr Putin’s intervention risks widening the gulf between Russia and the UK over the attempted assassination, which triggered a wave of diplomatic expulsions by both sides.
His hint that the men could soon break their cover recalls memories of the assassination of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko on British soil, when killers Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun publicly refuted the allegations from Russia.
Detectives believe it is likely the two Salisbury suspects, thought to be aged around 40, travelled under aliases and that Petrov and Boshirov are not their real names.
Prosecutors deem it futile to apply to Russia for the extradition of the two men but a European Arrest Warrant has been obtained and the authorities are also seeking the assistance of Interpol.
Officers formally linked the attack on the Skripals to events in nearby Amesbury when Dawn Sturgess, 44, and her partner Charlie Rowley, 45, were exposed to the same nerve agent.
Ms Sturgess died in hospital in July, just over a week after the pair fell ill.
A police officer who visited the home of the Skripals shortly after the attack, Nick Bailey, was also left critically ill from exposure to the substance.