Russian spy attack: Johnson welcomes allies’ support

Foreign secretary’s remarks precede Trump sacking of Tillerson, who had criticised Moscow

The UK has been encouraged by the “strength of support” from allies to take action against Russia after the nerve agent attack on a former spy and his daughter, Boris Johnson said just hours before the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was sacked by Donald Trump.

Tillerson, who spoke to the foreign secretary on Monday afternoon, had told reporters the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal “clearly came from Russia” and would have consequences.

His remarks went further than those of Theresa May, who told the House of Commons on Monday it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the attack. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had stopped short of pointing the finger at Russia.

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Tory links to Russia and Saudis run deep. So where’s the outrage? | Owen Jones

Never mind ‘Corbyn the spy’, our governing party pockets millions from regimes that back extremism – and gets away with it

The Conservative party is in the pocket of foreign powers that represent a threat to the national security of Britain. It is a grotesquely under-reported national scandal, lost amid a hysterical Tory campaign to delegitimise the Labour party with false allegations of treason. If Labour had received £820,000 from Russian-linked oligarchs and companies in the past 20 months – and indeed £3m since 2010 – the media outrage would be deafening. But this is the Tory party, so there are no cries of treachery, of being in league with a hostile foreign power, of threatening the nation’s security.

When questioned about the Russian donations to the Tory party, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, pointedly refused to return the money. “There are people in this country who are British citizens, who are of Russian origin,” he protested. “I don’t think we should taint them, or should tar them, with Putin’s brush.” How noble: a Tory challenging the demonisation of migrants.

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Sergei Skripal: Russia links attempted murder to deaths of Kremlin enemies

Embassy issues provocative tweet as Cobra meeting hears that case involves 250 counter-terror police and 200 witnesses

Russia stepped up its war of words with Britain on Saturday as its embassy in London linked the attempted murder of double agent Sergei Skripal to the deaths of three exiled enemies of the Kremlin.

The provocative move came as the home secretary, Amber Rudd, chaired a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee into how the investigation into the attack on Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, was progressing.

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Russian spy attack: focus falls on Salisbury cemetery

Hundreds of troops arrive on streets and experts in hazmat suits work near grave of Sergei Skripal’s wife

Almost 200 members of the armed forces arrived on the streets of Salisbury on Friday to support police investigating the nerve agent attack on a Russian former spy and his daughter, as attention focused on the cemetery where the remains of Sergei Skripal’s wife and and son lie.

In extraordinary scenes at the city’s London Road cemetery that indicated the investigation was gathering pace, experts in full hazmat suits helped set up tents over the grave of Liudmila Skripal and the memorial of Alexander Skripal, who both died in recent years.

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Russia ‘on wrong side of history’ over Syria chemical weapons – US

A top US disarmament official has accused Russia of being on the wrong side of history on chemical weapon use in Syria, after reports of a chlorine attack in the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta and the leaking of a UN reportinto the supply of related items from North Korea.

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is said to have opened an investigation into the latest reports of chemical attacks in Ghouta, where doctors said more than a dozen civilians had been treated for symptoms that matched those of exposure to chlorine gas.


How bad is the situation in eastern Ghouta and is aid getting in?

In an attempt to convey the desperate and unyielding misery, the United Nations Children’s Fund released a blank statement on 20 February. A footnote said the agency has no words to describe the “children’s suffering and our outrage”.

The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, did have words: “Hell on earth.”

An estimated 400,000 civilians, already starved from years of blockade, are trapped amid relentless air strikes. ​Hundreds of people have been killed in the barrage that started on 18 February. Humanitarian groups are pleading for an urgent ceasefire to allow them inside.

Aid workers say Syrian helicopters have been dropping barrel bombs – metal drums packed with explosives and shrapnel – on marketplaces and medical centres.

Photograph: Mohammed Badra/EPA
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The investigation also comes a day after details of a UN report were leaked, which said North Korea had sent Syria more than 40 items used in ballistic and chemical weapons programmes in the five years from 2012 to 2017.

Bashar al-Assad’s government was supposed to have given up its chemical weapons arsenal under a deal brokered in 2013 between the US and Russia, but the agreement does not include chlorine because of its industrial uses.

A senior US disarmament official said on Wednesday that Russia had violated its commitments as guarantor of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and preventing the Assad government from using them.

Robert Wood, the US permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, told reporters in Geneva: “Russia is on the wrong side of history with regard to chemical weapons use in Syria.”

Residents in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta endured another day of living in basements and bomb shelters after a five-hour lull gave way to renewed violence, four days after the UN security council called for an immediate month-long ceasefire.

Doctors in the enclave said 23 people had been killed in the last 24 hours, adding to a death toll of more than 500 since airstrikes and shelling by Assad’s forces and their Russian allies intensified 11 days ago. One rescue worker was killed while pulling civilians from under the rubble after an apparent strike targeted paramedics and volunteers from a local civil defence group.


Which outside powers are involved in the Syrian war?

Over seven years, the civil war has dragged in multiple foreign nations, turning what started as a pro-democracy uprising into a quagmire of overlapping conflicts.

Global powerhouses including Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and the United States have all, to different extents, engaged their militaries in the conflict. At the same time, they have supported warring factions on the ground, including Iran-allied Hezbollah, Kurdish militia, and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces alliance. Islamic State and al-Qaida are also present.

Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP
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Ground clashes also erupted on the outskirts of eastern Ghouta as Assad’s troops tested rebel defences after a week and a half of some of the most intense bombardments of the seven-year war.

Vladimir Putin ordered a daily five-hour pause in the fighting on Tuesday, effectively overriding a security council resolution that called for a 30-day ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid. The Russian presidentalso called for the opening of humanitarian corridors. Residents said the pause had led to a brief respite but that airstrikes had returned with force at 2pm.

“It’s like the Russian and Syrian regime pilots are waiting at the ready for 2pm and immediately the bombing and jets and strikes begin,” said a local journalist in Ghouta. “Though today they’re dividing it between the civilians and the frontlines – they’ve introduced more variety.

“People don’t dare to come out of the shelters because it’s not safe. Some of them haven’t had a proper meal in 72 hours.” The siege and bombardment have also taken a grave toll on doctors and paramedics who are struggling to keep up with the influx of wounded.

The scenario in eastern Ghouta, which is home to nearly 400,000 civilians by UN estimates, is reminiscent of previous campaigns by Assad’s troops with Russian support. The government and its allies took back control of the city of Aleppo in 2016 after a crippling six-month siege followed by ground assault and a deal that led to the evacuation of civilians and rebel fighters.


How does eastern Ghouta compare to Aleppo?

Syria’s second city, Aleppo, fell into government hands in December 2016 after four years of resistance from rebels, who at one point held large chunks of the ancient metropolis. But the costs to the city and its people were huge, as hundreds of Russian and Syrian air raids pulverised entire neighbourhoods.

The battle for Aleppo was similar to Ghouta in the tactics used by forces loyal to Assad to eject the militants: a persistent and ferocious bombardment with the apparent aim of forcing rebels into a deal to evacuate.

The UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has warned that Ghouta risks “becoming a second Aleppo; and we have learned, I hope, lessons from that”.

Photograph: Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP
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The failure of the UN security council resolution and Russia’s own initiative highlight the international community’s inability to end the violence in Syria. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has described Ghouta as hell on earth, the high commissioner for human rights has said the campaign against the enclave is a “monstrous annihilation”, but the mounting condemnation has done little to elicit any compromises from Assad and his allies.

Putin said on Wednesday that Russia had managed to evacuate “quite a big group” of civilians from eastern Ghouta, but gave no details.

Russia supreme court rules Kremlin critic cannot run for president

Russia’s supreme court has upheld a ban on the government critic Alexei Navalny from running for president, a decision he has vowed to respond to with nationwide protests.

“We don’t recognise elections without competition,” Navalny wrote on Twitter after the ruling on Saturday. He did not attend the hearing, which his lawyers say they will appeal against at the European court of human rights.

The ruling was widely expected and came after Russia’s central election committee said on 25 December that Navalny, 41, was not allowed to stand for public office until at least 2028 because of a previous fraud conviction.

An anti-corruption lawyer with a huge online following, Navalny says the charges were trumped up to prevent him taking on Vladimir Putin in the presidential election in March. He says Putin, who has been in power for 18 years and is widely expected to win re-election, is only prepared to face handpicked rival candidates.

Navalny has called for mass demonstrations on 28 January and asked his hundreds of thousands of supporters to boycott the election. He has brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets across Russia for anti-Putin protests twice in 2017. The Kremlin has said Navalny’s calls for an election boycott may be illegal.

Although he is currently polling at around 2%, Navalny says he would defeat Putin in “honest elections” if he were allowed to freely promote his anti-corruption policies.

The Kremlin critic, who is barred from state television, has been jailed three times in 2017 as he campaigned across Russia in a bid to force his way onto the ballot. He was also nearly blinded when a pro-Kremlin activist threw a chemical into his face.

Putin has never publicly referred to Navalny by name , but he said earlier this month that he was a dangerous influence whose calls for protests could plunge Russia into the kind of chaos that engulfed Ukraine after anti-government demonstrations toppled its Moscow-friendly president in 2014.