Putin faces midnight deadline to explain nerve attack on former spy to UK

President Vladimir Putin faces a midnight deadline to explain to Britain 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 southern English cathedral city of Salisbury.

Prime Minister Theresa May said it was“highly likely” Moscow was to blame after Britain identified the substance as part of the Novichok group of nerve agents which were developed by the Soviet military during the 1970s and 1980s.

“It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia,” May said.

“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

May gave Putin, who faces a presidential election on March 18, until end of Tuesday to explain what happened or face what she said were“much more extensive” measures against the $1.5 trillion Russian economy.

The Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, was summoned to the Foreign Office and given until the end of Tuesday to provide an explanation. Russia has denied any role in the attack on Skripal and his daughter.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States had“full confidence” in Britain’s assessment that Russia was likely responsible. U.S. President Donald Trump has not yet publicly commented on the attack.

Earlier, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the United States stood by Britain, calling it America’s“closest ally,” but she stopped short of blaming Russia for the attack.

The European Union also said it would stand by Britain, which is due to leave the bloc in just over a year’s time. May spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, who Downing Street said condemned the attack and offered his solidarity with Britain.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the use of any nerve agent was horrendous and completely unacceptable.

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