The British government says they're military intelligence officers who were ordered to carry out a high-profile assassination. But two Russian men, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, are defending themselves on Russian state TV, saying they visited England in March strictly as tourists.
"Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town," the man known as Petrov told the RT TV network.
"Salisbury?" their interviewer asked. "A wonderful town?"
"A tourist town," Boshirov said. After a brief pause, he added that the town is known for its cathedral, which is "famous not only in Europe, but in the whole world."
"It's famous for its 123-meter spire," he said, adding that its clock is also notable.
They cut their trip short because of bad weather, they said.
British officials have called this explanation "risible," saying it is "clear" the men are Russian intelligence officers, according to the Guardian.
The men sat for an interview with the state-funded RT network one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government had tracked down the men whom British authorities accuse of using a Novichok nerve agent to try to kill former KGB agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
The Russian government has denied involvement in the poisoning.
The two men's actual identities are a matter of dispute. British intelligence services say the names are likely aliases, used for a mission in which they failed to kill Skripal.
The accusation that they are part of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, was "the scariest thing" about the incident, Petrov said, according to the translation by RT.
When asked to state where he works, Petrov demurred, saying, "If we tell you about our business, people we work with will be affected."
When pressed to describe their work in general terms, he said, "To cut a long story short, we're in the fitness industry."
The pair said their lives were turned upside down after they were publicly named by U.K. police. They added that they would like to receive an apology from British officials.
Skripal, his daughter, and a police officer were left gravely ill by exposure to Novichok in March. And the exotic poison is also blamed for the death of Dawn Sturgess, 44, in July, after her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley, gave her what turned out to be a bottle of bogus perfume that contained the nerve agent. Police believe the perfume bottle had been specially adapted to carry the poison.
The two accused men spoke on camera for nearly 30 minutes, rarely smiling as they discussed their actions with RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan. While they acknowledged being the pair seen in images released by Scotland Yard, the men did not provide proof of their names.
"They demanded that only one camera run during the interview and refused to show their IDs," RT says of the interview carried out by Simonyan. "They said they would not go to the studio and only agreed to do the interview in her office."
If the pair really were sightseeing tourists, they made quick work of it, arriving in London from Moscow on a Friday afternoon and leaving Sunday night – after two visits to Salisbury.
"They had stayed less than hour in Salisbury, they said, because of bad weather," reports The Moscow Times. The newspaper added, "The two men said they did not work for GRU, were ordinary businessmen, and the victim of what they called 'a fantastical coincidence.' "
British police used surveillance camera footage from airports, transit stations and elsewhere to outline the pair's movements. They departed hours after the Skripals were found slumped over on a bench. Here's how the Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorism department described the two men's whirlwind trip to England:
"At 3pm on Friday, 2 March, the suspects arrived at Gatwick airport, having flown from Moscow on Aeroflot flight SU2588. From there it is believed that they travelled by train into London, arriving at Victoria station at approximately 5.40pm.
"They then travelled on London public transport to Waterloo station and were in the area between approximately 6pm and 7pm. They traveled to the City Stay Hotel in Bow Road, East London, where they stayed on Friday, 2 March, and Saturday, 3 March.
"On Saturday, 3 March, they left the hotel and took the underground to Waterloo station, arriving at approximately 11.45am, where they caught a train to Salisbury, arriving at approximately 2.25pm.
"They are believed to have taken a similar route when they returned to London on the afternoon of Saturday, 3 March. Leaving Salisbury at approximately 4.10pm and arriving in Bow at approximately 8.05 pm.
"We assess that this trip was for reconnaissance of the Salisbury area and do not believe that there was any risk to the public from their movements on this day.
"On Sunday, 4 March, they made the same journey from the hotel, again using the underground from Bow to Waterloo station at approximately 8.05am, before continuing their journey by train to Salisbury.
"CCTV shows them in the vicinity of Mr Skripal's house and we believe that they contaminated the front door with Novichok.
"They left Salisbury and returned to Waterloo Station, arriving at approximately 4.45pm and boarded the London Underground at approximately 6.30pm to London Heathrow Airport.
"From Heathrow Airport, they returned to Moscow on Aeroflot flight SU2585, departing at 10.30pm on Sunday, 4 March."
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