Russians 'planned cyber-attack' on Swiss Novichok testing lab

News by Tom Reeve

Dutch and Swiss authorities identified and arrested two Russian agents who were planning to hack into a Swiss lab analysing samples of Novichok from Salisbury and sarin gas from Syria.

Two Russians were arrested by Dutch authorities in March in connection with a planned cyber-attack on a Swiss chemical testing laboratory that was handling samples of Novichok from Salisbury, according to various sources.

The samples of Novichok had been taken from Salisbury following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent, and his daughter Yulia Skripal who had been visiting from Russia.

The laboratory, Labor Spiez, is a designated testing facility for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which confirmed the use of Novichok in the case. In addition to the Salisbury chemical samples, it was also analysing samples of nerve agents collected from Syria which turned out to be sarin gas which has been linked back to Russian support for the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

The Russians were arrested in the Hague by Dutch authorities on their way to Switzerland, according to a report on the Dutch website NRC.nl which has been investigating the story with the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.

According to NRC, the Russians – who are said to work for the GRU – were carrying equipment which would enable them to break into Labor Spiez. Andreas Bucher, a spokesman for the lab, confirmed that it had been the intended target.

It is thought that two spies, who worked as diplomats at the Russian embassy, were expelled. This has not been confirmed by Dutch officials but it was reported on 26 March that the prime minister, Mark Rutte, had expelled "two Russian intelligence officers working at the Russian embassy", giving them two weeks to leave the country.

Tages-Anzeiger said the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) has confirmed it played a role in the identification of the "Russian spies who were discovered in the Hague and then taken away".

An NDB spokesperson said, "The NDB has actively participated in this operation, together with its Dutch and British partners" and prevented "illegal actions against a critical Swiss infrastructure".

While the laboratory has denied being hacked, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in April that he had received a confidential report on the Salisbury poisoning from ‘sources’ at the lab. The OPCW said this would be a violation of its procedures which banned the sharing of reports with member states.

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