The scientist who leaked Russia’s Novichok ‘conspiracy’

The State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in Moscow. (AFP)
Updated 14 March 2018
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The scientist who leaked Russia’s Novichok ‘conspiracy’

MOSCOW: Dissident Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov gained notoriety in the 1990s when he blew the cover on Moscow’s secret experimentation with Novichok, the nerve gas used in the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in Britain.
Mirzayanov had worked for almost three decades in the Soviet Union at the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology.
After he was fired in 1992, he and another scientist wrote a newspaper article revealing how the government had developed deadly chemical compounds known as Novichok — or “newcomer” in English.
Now 83 and living in the US, Mirzayanov described the sophisticated substances used to make the Novichok agents which had been developed under a classified program codenamed Foliant, or folio.
Novichok agents are binary chemical weapons, he said, which means that their potency only manifests itself after chemical synthesis of relatively harmless components.
Since the same chemical elements in Novichok are used to make pesticides, facilities producing these substances can easily be disguised as civilian factories, he wrote.
Mirzayanov said he had witnessed several scientists failing to regain their health after exposure to a Novichok-type agent.
“The damage it inflicts is practically incurable,” he said in the article.
Asked this week about the March 4 poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, he was quoted as saying: “These people are gone — the man and his daughter. Even if they survive they will not recover.”
In his memoirs published in Russian in 2002, Mirzayanov said his institute and others in the country involved in the chemical weapons program continued their research even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and as Russia proclaimed disarmament and a ban on chemical weapons.
Binary bombs had been developed since the 1970s and were tested at a military base used for chemical weapons in a town called Shikhany in Russia’s southern Saratov region and also in Uzbekistan, Mirzayanov wrote.
“Like hundreds of other scientists, I was participating in a conspiracy against the future convention on chemical weapons,” he said.
He had been put in charge of controlling potential leaks of harmful chemicals used in the Foliant program into the air and waterways.
His memoirs describe witnessing a relatively unsuccessful test of a precursor to Novichok-type agents based on a chemical named simply “Substance-33.”
In the test, the substance was deployed in vapor form via a bomb dropped from a plane.
The Novichok agents were not listed in the eventual Chemical Weapons Convention because Russia kept them secret, Mirziayanov argued.
Mirzayanov became involved in Russia’s nascent democratic movement and wanted to make his concerns about the chemical weapons program public.
As a result of his dissident activities, he was fired from the institute. He then decided to write the whistle-blowing article in a Moscow newspaper along with another chemist, Lev Fyodorov.
They warned of poor safety standards at the Moscow facility and vast quantities of harmful chemicals stored elsewhere in Russia.
The article led the authorities to prosecute Mirzayanov for divulging state secrets. He was arrested in October 1992 and held for several days in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison, used by the security services.
His case was eventually closed in 1994 after considerable international pressure on the Russian authorities. Mirzayanov has lived in the United States since 1996.
Russia declared in 2017 that it had destroyed all of its chemical weapon stockpile.
Moscow has rejected accusations of involvement in poisoning Skripal.


US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

Rescuers carry a man who was injured in an attack on a restaurant by Somali Islamist group al Shabaab in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia, October 1, 2016. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 min 4 sec ago
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US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

  • The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians

WASHINGTON: There is credible evidence that US military airstrikes in Somalia have killed or wounded nearly two dozen civilians, an international human rights group said Tuesday, charging that the Pentagon is not adequately investigating potential casualties.
US Africa Command officials immediately disputed the allegations laid out in a report by Amnesty International, and insisted that the military has investigated 18 cases of possible civilian casualties since 2017 and found that none were credible.
The seemingly contradictory information underscores the complexities of military operations against the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group in Somalia, involving airstrikes by several allied nations in hostile, remote locations that are difficult to access safely.
The report came the same day that a Somali intelligence official and two local residents said a US drone strike on Monday killed civilians.
The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians. The official was not authorized to talk with the media and did so on condition of anonymity.
Residents concurred with the official’s assessment.
Mohamed Siyad, an elder in Lanta Buro, a village near the farming town of Afgoye, Somalia, told The Associated Press that four civilians including employees of a telecom company were killed.
“They were known to us — they had nothing to do with Al-Shabab,” he said by phone.
Another resident, Abdiaziz Hajji, said that the drone destroyed the vehicle. “Bodies were burnt beyond recognition,” he said. “They were innocent civilians killed by Americans for no reason. They always get away with such horrible mistakes.”
In a rare move, US Africa Command on Tuesday mentioned those possible casualties in a press release about the strike and said officials will look into the incident. But, more broadly, US defense officials said casualty allegations in Somalia are questionable because Al-Shabab militants make false claims or force local citizens to do the same.
Amnesty International, however, said it analyzed satellite imagery and other data, and interviewed 65 witnesses and survivors of five specific airstrikes detailed in the report. The report concludes that there is “credible evidence” that the US was responsible for four of the airstrikes, and that it’s plausible the US conducted the fifth strike. It said 14 civilians were killed and eight injured in the strikes.
“Amnesty International’s research points to a failure by the US and Somali governments to adequately investigate allegations of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in Somalia,” the report said, adding that the US doesn’t have a good process for survivors or victims’ families to self-report losses.
US Africa Command said it looked at the five strikes and concluded there were no civilian casualties. In the fifth case the command said there were no US strikes in that area on that day.
The group’s report and Defense Department officials also agreed that the strikes usually take place in hostile areas controlled by Al-Shabab militants. And those conditions, the report said, “prevented Amnesty International organization from conducting on-site investigations and severely limited the organization’s ability to freely gather testimonial and physical evidence.”
US defense officials told reporters that American troops were on the ground at strike locations in a very limited number of cases. Even in those instances, they said, US troops ordered strikes to protect local Somali forces they were accompanying, and there was little opportunity to investigate possible civilian casualties at that moment.
Still, the rights group concluded that the US military’s insistence that there have been zero civilian deaths is wrong.
“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the US role in Somalia’s war is actually a smoke screen for impunity,” said Brian Castner, a senior adviser at Amnesty International.
US officials countered that they have access to information not readily available to nonmilitary organizations, including observations from people on the ground at the site and post-strike intelligence gathering from various electronic systems. Those systems can include overhead surveillance and data collected through cyber operations and other intercepted communications and electronic signals.
The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
They said the US rigorously assesses targets in advance to make sure no civilians will be hurt or killed.
The officials noted that Kenya and Ethiopia also conduct airstrikes in the region, but provided no details. There are 500 to 600 US troops in Somalia at any time.
The pace of US airstrikes in Somalia has escalated during the Trump administration, from 47 in all of 2018 to 28 already this year. So far more than 230 militants have been killed in 2019, compared to 338 killed in all of 2018.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump approved greater authorities for military operations against Al-Shabab, allowing increased strikes in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who heads Africa Command, told reporters in a recent interview that Al-Shabab controls about 25 percent of the country and the key effort is to help the government regain control of its land.
“The intention is to keep the pressure on that network,” he said.
He said there are three categories of strikes: ones to target senior Al-Shabab leaders, ones to take out training camps or involve Daesh militants in the north, and ones aimed at helping the government increase security and regain control of the country. He said the last group involves the most strikes.