Russia’s spy chief has claimed the Salisbury nerve agent attack was “staged” by Britain and the US, ahead of an emergency meeting of an international watchdog.
The top body of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet on Wednesday morning, at Moscow’s request, to discuss the attempted murder of ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia last month.
The OPCW’s executive council, made up of countries’ representatives, will hold an extraordinary gathering in The Hague with the Salisbury attack the only item on the agenda.
Russia demanded the behind closed-doors talks after the UK Government accused Moscow of being responsible for use of a military-grade chemical weapon in the Wiltshire city.
The UK Government said Russia was using the meeting to “undermine” the work of the OPCW.
Ahead of the OPCW meeting, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency chief Sergei Naryshkin claimed the current tensions between Moscow and the West mean “it’s possible to speak of a return to the dark times of the Cold War”.
However, Mr Naryshkin suggested not all European countries would continue to follow Britain’s lead in blaming Russia for the Salisbury attack.
Speaking at a security conference in the Russian capital, Mr Naryshkin claimed the Skripals’ poisoning was a “grotesque provocation rudely staged by the British and US intelligence agencies.”
He added: “Some European governments are not following London and Washington blindly but are instead choosing to carefully make sense of what happened.”
Last month, EU leaders agreed there was “no plausible alternative explanation” other than Russian responsibility, which came before the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from European capitals.
However, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has since cast doubt on continuing international solidarity with the UK’s position.
Armin Laschet, one of five deputy chairmen of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, posted on Twitter on Tuesday: “If one forces nearly all NATO countries into solidarity, shouldn’t one have certain evidence?
“Regardless of what one thinks about Russia, my study of international law taught me a different way to deal with other states.”
His remarks came in response to the head of the laboratory where the substance found on the Skripals was tested, telling Sky News they were not yet able to prove it was made in Russia.
Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, said his team could not yet pinpoint the “precise source” of the nerve agent, but had identified it as “military grade” novichok.
He also confirmed the substance required “extremely sophisticated methods to create, something only in the capabilities of a state actor”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the Sky News interview as he attacked “the speed at which the anti-Russian campaign has been launched”, adding that it “causes bewilderment”.
Downing Street later highlighted how other intelligence sources have also been used, together with the work at Porton Down, to draw the conclusion of Russian responsibility.
Ahead of the OPCW meeting, a Foreign Office spokesman said: “Russia has called this meeting to undermine the work of the OPCW, which, fully in accordance with the chemical weapons convention, is providing the UK with technical assistance and evaluation through independent analysis of samples from the Salisbury attack.
“Of course, there is no requirement in the chemical weapons convention for the victim of a chemical weapons attack to engage in a joint investigation with the likely perpetrator.
“This Russian initiative is yet again another diversionary tactic, intended to undermine the work of the OPCW in reaching a conclusion.”
Belarus: Tens of thousands march through Minsk against President Lukashenko as hackers leak police details | World News
Tens of thousands of people marched through the Belarusian capital Minsk on Sunday, calling for the resignation of president Alexander Lukashenko in the sixth straight weekend of protests.
It comes as hackers leaked the personal details of more than 1,000 senior police officers, pledging that “no one will remain anonymous, even under a balaclava” amid reports of violent crackdowns targeting the protesters.
At least 10 people were detained on Sunday, according to Russian news agency TASS, which quoted a police spokesperson.
Local media organisations shared videos showing the security forces wearing helmets and balaclavas dragging demonstrators off the streets.
On Saturday, more than 390 women demonstrating in Minsk were arrested, including an elderly woman who has become a symbol of the protests.
The unrest began following the 9 August presidential election which many Belarusians believe Mr Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager, fraudulently won.
Mr Lukashenko has been president in Belarus for 26 years, during which time he has consistently suppressed political opposition.
He has resisted the calls to resign, sometimes appearing carrying an automatic rifle, and buoyed by support from the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Weeks ago the European Union vowed to impose sanctions on Minsk for alleged election fraud and human rights abuses, but it is now expected to miss its Monday deadline for action.
Thousands of people have been detained during the protests, many of whom have reported being beaten and tortured while detained – although the government denies these claims.
“As the arrests continue, we will continue to publish data on a massive scale,” the hackers told opposition news channel Nexta.
The details include the names of the senior officers, as well their surnames, patronyms – common in Russian-speaking countries – as well as their dates of birth, parent units, ranks and positions.
The government said it would find and punish whoever was responsible for leaking the data on police officers, which was distributed over the popular chat app Telegram on Saturday.
“The forces, means and technologies at the disposal of the internal affairs bodies make it possible to identify and prosecute the overwhelming majority of those guilty of leaking personal data on the internet,” said Olga Chemodanova, a spokesperson for the Belarusian minister of internal affairs.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya praised the women’s march in a video statement from Lithuania, where she fled after being held inside a government electoral office following the election.
Speaking to Sky News, Mrs Tikhanovskaya said she was not yet ready to talk about what happened to her during the time she was held in custody.
It is thought she was threatened with being separated from her two young children, whom she had already moved to Lithuania.
“They have frightened and put pressure on women for the second month, but despite this, Belarusians are continuing their peaceful protest and showing their amazing fortitude,” Mrs Tikhanovskaya said of Saturday’s march.
The Belarusian government reacted angrily to reports that Mrs Tikhanovskaya could soon meet EU foreign ministers.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticised the EU, accusing Brussels of attempting to “rock the boat” in Belarus – seen by Moscow as a strategic buffer against the EU and NATO.
Russia has accused the US of fomenting revolution in Minsk, and agreed to give a $1.5bn (£1.16bn) loan to prop up Mr Lukashenko’s government following a meeting with Mr Putin.
Belarus will spend $330m (£255m) of the money it has received to cover its outstanding debt to the Russian gas giant Gazprom, according to Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov.
Coronavirus: Only one in 10 to be protected from COVID-19 in first year of vaccine use | UK News
Just one in 10 of the world’s population is likely to be protected against COVID-19 in the first year of a vaccine being made available, experts have told Sky News.
Analysis of global manufacturing capacity shows just two billion doses could be made in 2021, even if a vaccine was given the green light by safety regulators at the start of the year.
But with seven of the nine prototype vaccines in late-stage clinical trials requiring two doses, that’s likely to be enough to immunise only a little over 12% of the 7.8 billion people who need it.
Dr Cleo Kontoravdi, associate professor of chemical engineering at Imperial College London, told Sky News: “We have to be clear that in the first instance not everybody will have access to the vaccine. We do not have the manufacturing capacity.”
Calculations by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations show that even if manufacturing capacity doubled, as planned, over the next 12 months less than half the world’s population could be protected by the end of 2022.
It could mean some travel restrictions and social distancing will be needed for years to come, unless there is a game-changing advance in vaccine technology that speeds up production.
But making large amounts of vaccine is just one of many hurdles that will need to be overcome in the months ahead.
One of the biggest bottlenecks is traditionally at the “fill and finish” stage of production, when the vaccine is put in glass vials, labelled and packaged.
It needs several supply chains to converge seamlessly, with the final product meeting high quality standards. Any hiccup can cause delays.
Sky News was given access to Wockhardt’s plant in Wrexham, where a high-speed production line has been bought up by the government to produce a finished vaccine over the next 18 months.
Preparations are being made to start production of the Oxford vaccine as soon as November. Between two and three million vials, each containing eight doses, could be produced every month.
Ravi Limaye, Wockhardt’s UK managing director, said the vials will be quarantined until the vaccine is approved by safety regulators – but will have to be destroyed if for any reason it’s turned down.
“This is a risk that one has to take considering the enormity of this pandemic,” he said.
“This is an unprecedented step taken by the government in the interest of the UK to get the vaccine ready so that if it is approved by regulators it can be used straight away.
“It is a risk but a calculated risk.”
‘Down with feudalism’: Activists lay plaque in defiance of Thai king | World News
They promised a dawn surprise, and in Bangkok, anti-government protesters ushered it in to the chorus of a pneumatic drill.
Below the skirt of a tent, we watched them chip away at a square of concrete in front of the country’s Grand Palace.
Into it they laid a plaque which declared that Thailand belongs to the people.
It’s the latest challenge to the monarchy by a series of pro-democracy demonstrations which have been happening almost daily since July.
Many of Sunday’s crowd have been there all night, after attending a massive demonstration on Saturday which the organisers claim attracted 100,000 supporters – while Thai authorities claimed the turnout was around 20,000.
“Down with feudalism, long live the people,” the protesters chanted, before lining up to buy their own miniature metal versions of the plaque, which sold out in minutes.
The plaque resembles one commemorating the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
In 2017, after King Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne, it mysteriously disappeared from outside one of the royal palaces.
It was replaced by one bearing a pro-monarchist slogan.
Until recently, open criticism of the monarchy was unheard of in Thailand, which has strict defamation laws concerning the royal family.
Anyone found guilty of breaching them could face up to 15 years in jail.
But some of the movement’s leaders have been breaking this taboo.
As well as reform of the monarchy, they want new elections, a new constitution and the prime minister to step down.
Today, they went further, leading the crowd to present a petition of their demands, addressed to the king.
As the convoy snaked its way towards the Grand Palace, it was stopped by a line of unarmed police.
People had been warned to avoid clashes and as officers and protesters faced off at the barriers, student activist Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul made her way through the masses to give their letter to Bangkok’s police chief.
They hope it will be passed on to the king who is currently abroad.
“We have now proved that even an ordinary citizen can communicate with the king, with the monarch, directly,” student leader Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak told me.
If their demands go unanswered, they have said they’ll escalate their movement.
The Royal Palace was not immediately available for comment.
Government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri told me, ahead of the weekend’s gatherings: “We encourage people to come forward if they have any issues at the moment to discuss. But we will try to avoid any kind of confrontation and we will try to facilitate in terms of discussion in a constructive way.”
Demonstrators say they will gather again on Thursday.
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