MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Russian authorities know the identities of the two men accused by Britain of carrying out a nerve agent attack on a former spy, but he added that they are civilians and there is "nothing criminal" about them.
The statement by Putin marked an abrupt shift from Russia's earlier position on the poisoning case that has damaged relations between Moscow and the West. Initially, Russian officials said they had no idea who the men were and questioned the authenticity of some security-camera photos and video released by Scotland Yard showing them in London and Salisbury, where the poisoning took place.
Britain last week charged two men in absentia, identifying them as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Authorities alleged they were agents of Russia's military intelligence agency known as the GRU and accused them of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury on March 4.
Britain blamed the Russian government for the attack, an allegation that Moscow has vehemently denied.
Putin on Wednesday did not try to dispute the British evidence, but he insisted the men were innocent.
"We know who these people are, we have found them," Putin said in response to question at panel for an economic conference in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East. "There is nothing special or criminal about it, I can assure you."
Asked by the panel's moderator if the men work for the military, Putin replied that they are "civilians."
The attack left the Skripals hospitalized for weeks, and two other area residents became seriously ill. One of them, a 44-year-old woman, later died.
Meanwhile, Russian news reports say a member of Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot has been hospitalized in grave condition for what could be a possible poisoning.
Ekho Moskvy radio and online news portal Meduza reported Wednesday that Pyotr Verzilov has been in emergency care since late Tuesday. They quoted a fellow group member, Veronika Nikulshina, as saying Verzilov's symptoms included losing his eyesight and ability to speak.
Verzilov, Nikulshina and two other activists served 15-day jail sentences for disrupting July's World Cup final.