Britain gives Putin until midnight to explain nerve attack on former spy Sergei Skripal

LONDON, March 13 (Reuters) - Britain gave President Vladimir Putin until midnight on Tuesday to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union was used to strike down a former Russian double agent who passed secrets to British intelligence.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital in a critical condition since March 4 when they were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the English cathedral city of Salisbury.

Prime Minister Theresa May said it was "highly likely" that Russia was to blame after Britain identified the substance as part of the highly-lethal Novichok group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country," May told parliament on Monday. "Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others."

Russia holds a presidential election on March 18 in which Putin, himself a former KGB spy, is expected to coast easily to a fourth term in the Kremlin. It has denied any role in the poisoning and says Britain is whipping up anti-Russian hysteria.

RELATED: The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning

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The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
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The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
Chairs are seen on tables inside the Mill pub which former Russian inteligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia visited before they were found poisoned on a bench nearby in Salisbury, Britain, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Witness Freya Church, 27, walks with a policeman near a forensic tent where Sergei Skripal, 66 and his duaghter Yulia Skripal, in her 30s, were found unconscious in Salisbury town centre two days previously on March 6, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010 and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A forensics tent covers the bench, where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped, in a cordoned off area in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers seal off the road on which Russian Sergei Skripal and his daughter have been staying in Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers stand on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley leaves after giving a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: A police tent is seen behind a cordon outside The Maltings shopping centre where a man and a woman were found critically ill on a bench on March 4 and taken to hospital sparking a major incident, on March 7, 2018 in Wiltshire, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands at a cordon around the bench where former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd, accompanied by Temporary Chief Constable Kier Pritchard, visits the scene where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after having been poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, Britain, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
A police officer stands on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers work at a supermarket near the bench where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 6, 2018: Pictured in this file image dated August 9, 2006, is retired colonel Sergei Skripal during a hearing at the Moscow District Court. File image/Press Office of Moscow District Military Court/TASS (Photo by TASS\TASS via Getty Images)
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Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, summoned to the Foreign Office, was given until the end of Tuesday to explain what happened or face what May said were "much more extensive" measures against the $1.5 trillion Russian economy.

If no satisfactory Russian response is received by midnight London time then May will outline Britain's response in parliament. She is due to hold a meeting of top security officials on Wednesday.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that the British response would be "commensurate but robust."

"We're giving Russia until midnight to explain how it came to be that Novichok was used on the streets of Wiltshire," he said. "We cannot exclude that they have an explanation."

Russia has requested access to the nerve agent used against Skripal but Britain has denied it access, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Britain's Russian ambassador met Lavrov's deputy in Moscow on Tuesday, a spokesman for the British embassy said.

JOINT WESTERN RESPONSE

Britain could call on allies for a coordinated Western response, freeze the assets of Russian business leaders and officials, expel diplomats, launch targetted cyber attacks and cut back participation in events such as the soccer World Cup.

Official figures show that Russia accounted for 4.7 billion pounds ($6.5 billion) of goods and services imported to Britain in 2016, less than 1 percent of its total. Exports were put at 5.3 billion pounds out of a British total of just under 550 billion pounds.

European allies including French President Emmanuel Macron expressed solidarity with Britain. U.S. President Donald Trump has not yet publicly commented, though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States had full confidence in the assessment that Russia was responsible.

The European Union pledged to stand by Britain, which is due to leave the bloc in just over a year's time, though the bloc has struggled to maintain a common front on Russian sanctions.

Huge amounts of Russian money have poured into the British capital since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, causing some to refer to it as "Londongrad."

James Sherr, a Russia expert at the Chatham House think-tank, told Reuters Britain could hurt Putin and his allies by denying them access to the City of London's financial services.

"They have milked and taken for granted its services as a hub for their global dealings and investments. They have been accustomed for a long time to regard this country as their playground and we have the means to change that," he said.

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Vladimir Putin through the years
P362575 05: A class photo with Vladimir Putin, (fourth row, second from left) dated 1966 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Laski Diffusion)
368975 01: (AMERICAS ONLY) FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, poses for a photograph in this file photo with his parents Maria and Vladimir Putin in1985 just before his departure to Germany. Putin was sworn in as Russia''s second democratically elected president May 7, 2000, pledging to restore Russia as a great power. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Newsmakers)
ITAR-TASS: LENINGRAD, USSR. Vladimir Putin seen with his wife Lyudmila and daughter Maria. File photo from family archive was taken in spring 1985. (Photo ITAR-TASS) (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)
St, petersburg mayor anatoly sobchak and austrian chancellor's wife christine vranitzky during a ceremony to name 'austria square' in downtown st, petersburg, austria has pledged to restore the square, future president of russia, vladimir putin, looks on, far left, september 1992. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George Bush meets with President Vladimir Putin at the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
KRASNODAR, RUSSIA: Russian acting President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to a boy (R) during his visit to the Children's regional clinic hospital in Krasnodar 11 February 2000. Putin arrived in Krasnodar for a two-day visit to take a part in the All Russia Conference on emergency measures to stabilise and develop the Russian agro-industrial complex. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) (Photo credit should read SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Uzbek president islam karimov helping rf president vladimir putin put on a traditional robe, uzbekistan, december 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura greet President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila outside of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY4: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (L) pose with their wives Ludmila Putin (2nd L) and Ana Botella before their lunch at Moncloa Palace June 14. Putin said he had no reason to believe the arrest of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was politically motivated but vowed to examine the case, which has stirred stormy protest in Moscow. (Photo credit should read SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Vladimir Putin - Politician, Mayor St. Petersburg, Russia - signs an agreement about the marketing of inventions. Second Mayor and Senator of Economics of Hamburg Hans-Juergen Krupp (right) (Photo by Ambor/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Moscow, russia, outgoing russian president boris yeltsin (r) shaking hands with russian prime minister and acting president vladimir putin (l) as he leaves moscow's kremlin, the seat of russian power,1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
Russian prime minister vladimir putin seen casting his vote during the elections to the state duma, at the polling station #2026 in moscow's kosygina street,moscow, russia, december 19, 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
N362234 01: (FILE PHOTO) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov on August 16, 1999. President Boris Yeltsin announced on national television Friday, Dec. 31, 1999 that he had resigned and presidential elections will be held within 90 days to replace him. Yeltsin said he was stepping down immediately because he wanted Putin to succeed him. Putin, the country's most popular politician, immediately took control of the government and will serve as acting president until the elections. (photo by Laski Diffusion/Liaison Agency)
SEVEROMORSK, RUSSIA - APRIL 7: Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin watches the tactical exercises of Russia's Northern Fleet in the Barentsevo Sea, 06 April 2000. Vladimir Putin spent the night underwater in a nuclear submarine near the Arctic Circle. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
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"This regime in Russia is founded on a tight and unprincipled merger at all levels between power and money: if you attack the money, you are also attacking the regime's power."

The EU has travel restrictions and asset freezes against 150 people and 38 companies. EU nationals and companies are also banned from buying or selling new bonds or equity in some state-owned Russian banks and major Russian energy companies.

NERVE AGENT

May said Russia had shown a pattern of aggression including the annexation of Crimea and the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

A public inquiry found the killing of Litvinenko had probably been approved by Putin and carried out by two Russians, one of them a former KGB bodyguard who became a member of the Russian parliament. Both denied responsibility, as did Moscow.

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said police and the MI5 spy agency would look into allegations of Russian state involvement in 14 other deaths in Britain in recent years.

Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before his arrest in Moscow in 2004. He was imprisoned in 2006 but in 2010 he was given refuge in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies.

He had lived modestly in Salisbury since then and kept out of the spotlight until he was found unconscious on Sunday.

A British policeman who was one of the first to attend to the stricken spy was also affected by the nerve agent. He is now conscious in a serious but stable condition. ($1 = 0.7197 pounds)

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, and Katya Golubkova, Christian Lowe and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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