LONDON — In her first public comment since she and her father, a former Russian spy, were poisoned by a nerve agent, Yulia Skripal said Thursday from a hospital that she’s recovering quickly, but the whole ordeal has been “somewhat disorientating.”
Britain has blamed Russia for the March 4 poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal in the city of Salisbury, and more than two dozen Western allies have expelled over 150 Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity. Moscow has fiercely denied the accusations and sent home an equal number of envoys in an all-out diplomatic war unseen even at the height of the Cold War.
Yulia Skripal said in a statement released by British police that her “strength is growing daily” and expressed gratitude to those who came to her aid.
“I am sure you appreciate that the entire episode is somewhat disorientating, and I hope that you’ll respect my privacy and that of my family during the period of my convalescence,” the 33-year-old said.
The hospital treating the Skripals confirmed that Yulia’s health has improved, while her 66-year-old father remains in critical condition.
Russian state Rossiya TV on Thursday released a recording of a purported phone call between Yulia Skripal and her cousin in Russia, although the broadcaster said it could not verify its authenticity. In the call, Yulia Skripal allegedly says she and her father are both recovering and in normal health, and that her father’s health has not been irreparably damaged.
Rossiya TV said Skripal’s niece, Viktoria, who lives in Moscow, gave it the purported recording.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the British accusations against Moscow as a mockery of international law. At a news conference Thursday, Lavrov insisted the poisoning case was fabricated by Britain to “demonize” Russia.
“The so-called Skripal case has been used as a fictitious, orchestrated pretext for the unfounded massive expulsions of Russian diplomats not only from the U.S. and Britain but also from a number of other countries who simply had their arms twisted,” Lavrov said in Moscow. “We have never seen such an open mockery of the international law, diplomatic ethics and elementary decorum.”
As part of the diplomatic row, Russia last week ordered 60 U.S. diplomats to leave the country by Thursday in retaliation for Washington’s expulsion of the same number of Russians.
Three buses believed to be carrying expelled American diplomats left the U.S. Embassy in Moscow early Thursday after loading their luggage on trucks. Some toted pet carriers.
Lavrov noted that Russia will respond in kind to any further hostile moves, but added that “we also want to establish the truth.”
He sarcastically likened the British accusations to the queen from Alice in Wonderland urging “sentence first — verdict afterward.”
On Wednesday, Russia called a meeting of the international chemical weapons watchdog to demand a joint investigation with Britain into the poisoning — a demand that London has rejected.
The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons voted against the Russian proposal, but Moscow said the number of countries that abstained from the vote suggested many have doubts about Britain’s accusations.
“It’s unacceptable to make unfounded accusations instead of conducting a fair investigation and providing concrete facts,” Lavrov said. “Yesterday’s debate in The Hague showed that self-respecting adults don’t believe in fairy tales.”
Asked if Russia would accept the OPCW’s conclusions, Lavrov said Moscow must be part of the inquiry and see the evidence.
“We can’t give an advance approval to results of the investigation, in which we aren’t taking part and which is kept secret,” he said. “We would accept the results of any investigation that would be fair, not the one organized in a fraudulent way.”
Moscow has called a meeting of the U.N. Security Council for later Thursday to press its case.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Wednesday “the purpose of Russia’s ludicrous proposal at The Hague was clear — to undermine the independent, impartial work of the international chemical weapons watchdog.”
The head of Britain’s defence research facility, the Porton Down laboratory, acknowledged Tuesday it has not been able to pinpoint the precise source of the nerve agent.
Gary Aitkenhead said scientists there identified the substance used on the Skripals as a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok. But he added “it’s not our job to say where that was actually manufactured.”
Russia said that it never produced Novichok and completed the destruction of its chemical arsenals under international control last year.
Lavrov noted that Aitkenhead’s statement indicated Porton Down had samples of Novichok to use it as a marker to determine the type of the nerve agent used in the attack. He added that Britain has failed to acknowledge yet that it possesses Novichok.
Russian officials mocked British claims that Moscow wanted to punish Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of spying for Britain before being released from prison in a 2010 swap. The Russian ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, said Moscow has no grudge against Skripal and would welcome him if he wants to return home.
The British government says it relied on a combination of scientific analysis and other intelligence to conclude that the nerve agent came from Russia, but the Foreign Office on Wednesday deleted a tweet from last month that said Porton Down scientists had identified the substance as “made in Russia.”
President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for cybersecurity, Alexander Krutskikh, mocked the contradictory statements, saying that “the latest developments around the Skripal case indicate the days of this British Cabinet are numbered.”
Yakovenko, who has been vocal in demanding evidence from Britain of Russia’s involvement, has even used some wry humour in the case.
Last month, a tweet from the Russian Embassy featured a photo of actor David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, the intrepid sleuth from Agatha Christie novels. It said: “In absence of evidence, we definitely need Poirot in Salisbury!”
Asked Thursday about the tweets, Yakovenko said that, “We are using in this situation a sense of human humour because some statements are really not friendly.”
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Jim Heintz and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow also contributed.
Danica Kirka And Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press