■ Duo ‘yearning to visit ancient cathedral’ set off in opposite direction towards Skripal home on the other side of town
THE prime suspects in the novichok poisonings have surfaced to claim they were just tourists who came to see ‘the famous Salisbury Cathedral’.
Russian duo Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Borishov denied they were on a mission to murder retired double agent Sergei Skripal — insisting friends told them to visit ‘this wonderful town’.
It came a day after Russia’s Vladimir Putin said the pair were civilians and he hoped they would ‘turn up very soon and explain everything themselves’.
Their story attracted widespread ridicule and Theresa May accused the Kremlin of ‘lies’ that ‘insult the public’s intelligence’. The two alleged GRU agents, accused by the UK of spraying deadly novichok on to their exiled countryman’s front door in Salisbury, appeared stiff and nervous during an appearance on Russian state TV.
Asked why they flew 2,000 miles to make two brief visits to the city on consecutive days, Borishov told RT: ‘We were just taking in the English gothic style.
‘There’s the famous Salisbury Cathedral, famous not just in Europe but in the whole world.
‘It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first one ever created in the world which is still working.’
Downing Street insisted: ‘They are wanted men and we have taken steps to ensure that they are apprehended and brought to justice in the UK if they ever again set foot outside Russia.’
The two alleged assassins, who stayed in an east London hotel after arriving from Moscow on March 2, made their first visit to Salisbury the following morning.
Police believe the trip was a scouting mission ahead of the hit the next day.
But according to Petrov: ‘We arrived in Salisbury on March 3 and tried to walk through the town but we lasted for only half-an-hour because there was muddy slush everywhere.’
He said they did visit the cathedral when they returned the next day, as well as the iron age hill fort Old Sarum. But none of the numerous CCTV images released by police shows them walking in the area of the 13th century place of worship.
The tall spire they said they came to admire is clearly visible from the station.
But it seems they still managed to take a wrong turn because, only ten minutes after arriving, they were on the other side of town, 200 yards from Mr Skripal’s home.
They did later stroll into the town centre and were spotted on CCTV about half a mile from the cathedral.
But only two hours after their arrival, the supposed architecture enthusiasts had seen enough of the city and were back at the station en route to Heathrow.
Borishov insisted: ‘Maybe we did [approach] Skripal’s house but we don’t know where it is located.’
Neither were asked about the traces of novichok found in their hotel room. But they were quizzed about the bogus bottle of Nina Ricci perfume used to transport the poison. ‘Isn’t it a bit silly for decent lads to have women’s perfume?’ Borishov said. ‘Customs are checking everything, they would have questions as to why men have women’s perfume in their luggage.’
Interviewer Margarita Simonyan also asked ‘what connects you?’, following speculation in the Russian media they had stayed in the same room as they were gay.
Boshirov replied: ‘Let’s not pry into our private lives.’ The pair said they were in the ‘sport nutrition business’.
Ms Simonyan later tweeted: ‘I don’t know if they’re gay. They’re fashionable guys, with fancy beards and haircuts, tight pants, biceps bulging under their sweaters. They didn’t hit on me but I’m past that age.’
Petrov demanded an apology from the UK authorities, saying he and Boshirov now ‘feared for their lives’. He added: ‘You can’t imagine what our lives turned into.’
The pair have been charged by Britain with attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. Mr Skripal, 67, and daughter Yulia, 34, survived but Dawn Sturgess, 44, died in July after spraying novichok on to her wrist from the discarded perfume bottle. Her partner found it in a charity shop bin.
Former British ambassador to Moscow Andrew Wood attacked Mr Putin over the interview, saying: ‘It’s disgraceful that the president of a major country should be sponsoring such a farce.’