Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has defended his reluctance to blame Russia categorically for the Salisbury nerve agent attack, insisting the government must avoid “hasty judgements”.
Writing in the Guardian, he warns not to “rush ahead of the evidence” in a “fevered parliamentary atmosphere”.
Investigators say they have identified 131 people who have potentially been exposed to the chemical used in Sunday’s attack on a former spy.
Russia has denied it was involved.
The US, Germany and France have backed the UK’s conclusion that Russia carried out the attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, after Theresa May said Russia was “culpable”.
PM Mrs May has announced the UK will expel 23 Russian diplomats, prompting a response from Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who said Russia will “certainly” expel British diplomats.
Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, remain critically ill in hospital, 12 days after they were found unconscious on a bench in the Wiltshire city.
They had been poisoned with a nerve agent of a type developed by Russia called Novichok, the UK government has said.
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In the Guardian article, Mr Corbyn writes that he agrees with the expulsion of the diplomats and describes the use of a military-grade nerve agent as “barbaric and beyond reckless”.
But he says that although the evidence points to Russia – the public deserve “calm heads and a measured response” from the government.
“To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police, in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security,” he writes.
Mr Corbyn says if Moscow is not to blame “a connection to Russian mafia-like groups” cannot be excluded.
He said Russian authorities should be “held to account on the basis of evidence”, adding: “But let us not manufacture a division over Russia where none exists.”
And he draws a link with the Iraq War – a result he says of “flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers”.
‘Condemned by all’
Earlier in the week, Mr Corbyn pressed the PM on whether the UK had supplied traces of the nerve agent used in the attack to Russia for analysis before Wednesday’s deadline, as the Kremlin had asked.
A sample is being sent to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – the independent international body set up to stop chemical warfare – for analysis, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has since said.
Meanwhile, Wiltshire Police said 46 people had been to Salisbury District Hospital expressing concerns but had not been admitted.
Among the 131 people who have been identified as potentially being in contact with the nerve agent, none have shown any symptoms.
A succession of Labour MPs – including some who have opposed Mr Corbyn as Labour leader – called for him to be firmer in his condemnation of Russia and backed Mrs May’s response to the attack.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Russian involvement in the spy attack should be called out “no ifs and no buts”.
On BBC Two’s Question Time, he said the attack “deserves to be condemned by all of us without reservation”.
“It’s very important we support the action the prime minister laid out,” he said.
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Asked whether he agreed with Mr Corbyn’s stance, Sir Keir said: “Everybody pretty much has said, Jeremy included, you’ve got to allow space for the police, the security and intelligence services to do their job.
“Jeremy is right to say let them get on with their job.”
Mr Corbyn’s assertion that “evidence points towards Russia” did not go as far as his shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith, who said the party accepted “Russia was responsible”.
“We very much accept what the prime minister said,” she told BBC Radio 4.
And the Sun says shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry also backed the PM’s stance, arguing that Russia has “to face the consequences”.
Corbyn ally Labour MP Chris Williamson told BBC Two’s Newsnight that “clearly it looks like the evidence points to Russia”, but said the UK needs to “make sure we get our facts right” before “leaping into action”.
He said his leader’s approach was “not about being nice to Russia” but about taking “a statesman-like approach”.
Mr Skripal is a retired colonel in the Russian military intelligence service. He was jailed by Moscow in 2006 for secretly working for Britain’s MI6 but was later released and allowed to come to the UK.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Theresa May visited Salisbury to speak to emergency service workers, public health experts and local business owners who are affected by the police cordons.
Some 220 police officers from 16 forces, 80 ambulance staff, 50 fire officers, 200 armed forces personnel and 250 specialist officers have been deployed, Wiltshire Police said.
Parts of The Maltings shopping centre, outside the Mill pub and the bench where the Skripals were found remain taped off.
On Thursday, streets were cordoned off and the army were deployed near to the Alderholt home of Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who is recovering in hospital after being exposed to the chemical.
Wiltshire Council has announced measures to help affected businesses including free park and ride journeys and waived business rates.