14 Mar 2018

Peters raises 'grave concerns' over UK nerve agent attack

12:09 am on 14 March 2018

New Zealand has raised "grave concerns" about a nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom, which Britain blames on Russia and is calling for an international investigation.

Winston Peters reacts to North Korea missile test.

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The UK today issued an ultimatum, saying Moscow was "highly likely" to be behind the poisoning of a former spy Sergei Skripal and had till Wednesday to respond.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said New Zealand was deeply disturbed at any use of banned chemical substances.

"The use of chemical weapons as a tool of war, or for murder or assassination is totally repugnant, and this incident is an affront to global rules and norms."

The government shared concerns expressed by other nations, Mr Peters said.

"How this military grade nerve agent was transported from Russia and released abroad is the key issue here, and warrants urgent international investigation."

New Zealand would make its views known at an executive meeting in The Hague this week of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

"We expect that any other OPCW member with information about this incident would support a full and thorough investigation so that the perpetrators are held to account."

Mr Peters turned down a request for an interview on the subject, saying he wanted to wait till after that OPWC meeting took place.

However, National's Foreign Affairs spokesman Todd McClay said Mr Peters' statement lacked credibility given his enthusiastic support for a free trade agreement with Russia.

"Here's a man who over the weekend was pro-Russia, saying we should do a trade deal with them before all others.

"He said that they had no responsibility for the downing of an airplane. He said there was no proof that they were involved in the US election."

Mr Peters needed to withdraw his "lone-wolf comments", Mr McClay said.

On a TV interview over the weekend, Mr Peters doubled-down on his advocacy for a free trade agreement with Russia.

He also questioned the Kremlin's involvement in both the US election and the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Mr McClay said Mr Peters' dream of a Russia FTA was now dead.

"The real question is how much harm has he done to a free trade agreement with the European Union?"

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said Russia has been given an ultimatum.

Russia's ambassador had been asked to explain whether it was "direct action" by the state or due to it "losing control" of its nerve agent stock, she said.

Ms May said the UK would consider their response before deciding what action to take, but must "stand ready to take much more extensive measures".

"Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom."

The chemical used in the attack had been identified as being part of a group of nerve agents known as "Novichok", Ms May said.

The name Novichok means "newcomer" in Russian, and applies to a group of advanced nerve agents developed in secret by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of the chemicals - called A-230 - is reportedly five to eight times more toxic than VX nerve agent, which can kill a person within minutes.

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