Swiss intelligence helped foil Russia plot to spy on lab

A sign warning of CCTV area controlled is seen next to the Spiez Laboratory, Swiss Federal Institute for NBC-Protection (nuclear, biological, chemical), on September 14, 2018 in Spiez, 40km from the capital Bern as Swiss newspapers reported that two Russian agents suspected of trying to spy the laboratory were arrested in the Netherlands and expelled early this year. (AFP)
Updated 15 September 2018
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Swiss intelligence helped foil Russia plot to spy on lab

  • British authorities tested the Novichok found in Salisbury at Porton Down, a defense facility nearby, but have not said where else the substance might have been analyzed

ZURICH: Switzerland’s intelligence agency said on Friday it had worked with British and Dutch counterparts to foil a Russian plot which, according to newspaper reports, was targeting a Swiss laboratory testing nerve agents such as Novichok. Earlier on Friday a Swiss and a Dutch newspaper reported that authorities from the three countries had teamed up in an operation which resulted in the Netherlands expelling two suspected Russian spies in March.
Citing unnamed sources, the Tages-Anzeiger and NRC Handelsblad reported that the suspected agents were heading for the Spiez laboratory near Bern which analyzes chemical and biological weapons, including nerve agent Novichok. Britain says Moscow used Novichok to try to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury in early March and last week charged two Russian men in absentia with attempted murder. “Swiss authorities are aware of the case of Russian spies identified in The Hague and expelled from there,” the Swiss NDB intelligence agency said in a statement. “The NDB took active part in this operation together with its Dutch and British partners. The NDB has thus contributed to preventing illegal activity targeting critical Swiss infrastructure.” It did not elaborate. The Russian embassy in Bern dismissed the Swiss account.
“We consider such false statements simply absurd and nothing other than another attempt to stoke an anti-Russian atmosphere,” it said.
The newspapers said the two suspects expelled from the Netherlands were not the same as the two men charged by British prosecutors in the Skripal case last week.
The Dutch military intelligence agency MIVD did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Dutch government announced on March 26 that it would expel two Russian “intelligence agents” who worked at the Russian embassy in The Hague, without giving further details.
A spokesman for the Spiez laboratory declined to comment on the NDB statement, but said the government facility had previously been the target of cyberattacks.
In July the Spiez lab said hackers had circulated a malware-loaded document purporting to be a factsheet linked to a scientific workshop the lab organized, but that it was unaware of any direct attacks on the lab itself.
British authorities tested the Novichok found in Salisbury at Porton Down, a defense facility nearby, but have not said where else the substance might have been analyzed.
The newspaper reports said the alleged Russian plot had gone beyond cyberattacks and that authorities found “equipment used for espionage” during their operation against the suspected spies.
In the weeks after the Skripal poisoning, Britain and dozens of other countries have kicked out scores of Russian diplomats, and Moscow has responded tit-for-tat in the biggest East-West wave of expulsions since the Cold War.


Smugglers pave path for migrants from Africa to Europe

Migrants attempt to open the rear door of a truck at the Brittany ferry port in Ouistreham, northwestern France, on September 18, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 40 min 31 sec ago
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Smugglers pave path for migrants from Africa to Europe

  • Migrants gather in Morocco because “it's the best place to wait for the right moment to cross” over borders with Africa
  • Europol estimates migrants pay on average €3,000-5,000 for a complete trip to Europe

MADRID: They scale barbed-wire topped fences and cross the sea in inflatable boats or jet skis — more than 36,000 migrants entered Spain this year seeking a better life in Europe. Almost all of them relied on smugglers to make the crossing. Ousman Umar, who made a five-year journey from Ghana to Spain, said it was “impossible” to travel thousands of kilometres from sub-Saharan Africa through deserts and other inhospitable areas without the aid of gangs.
“There is almost no chance of reaching Europe illegally” without paying traffickers, Robert Crepinko, the head of the human smuggling unit at Europol, the European Union's policing arm, told AFP. Ninety percent of migrants who enter Europe are helped by human traffickers, he added, citing a 2015 study.
Spain has become the main entry point for migrants arriving this year, after Italy and Greece. “The journey can last one year, two years, depending on the ring and the funds you have, because the trafficking networks will take you as far as you can pay,” Jose Nieto Barroso of the national police's human smuggling unit UCRIF told AFP.
Migrants gather in Morocco because “it's the best place to wait for the right moment to cross” over to Spain, said Nieto Barroso.
The vast majority pay for a spot on an inflatable dinghy or to take part in a mass run on the heavily fortified border fences that surround Ceuta and Melilla, two tiny Spanish territories in North Africa that share the EU's only land borders with Africa. Human traffickers charge 18 euros ($21) to try to scale the border fences, 200-700 euros to join a packed boat to cross the narrow Strait of Gibraltar separating Spain from Morocco by just 15 kilometers (9 miles) at its narrowest point, or up to 5,000 euros to make the trip by jet ski, according to Spanish police. Europol estimates migrants pay on average €3,000-5,000 for a complete trip to Europe. Once in Spain, many want to move on to wealthier northern European countries like Britain, France and Germany where they believe they will have better opportunities, or because they already have family there. Once again, human traffickers play a role in getting them there. The smugglers promise migrants they will be rescued at sea by the Spanish coast guard and then taken to migrant reception centers where “in three or four days members of the network will be in the area and get you out,” Nieto Barroso said. The gang will then take the migrants to another country or, in worst-case scenarios, pass them on to other gangs that exploit them. Women are sometimes forced into prostitution while men are used as slave labor in agriculture or made to beg in the streets. The rings “supply people. They say: 'I have 8, 12, 15 people from the sub-Sahara who can be put to work',” said Nieto Barroso.
Gangs take advantage of the “brutal collapse” of overcrowded migrant reception centers, and gain access to migrants through nonprofit organizations which work with the newcomers, he added. Paloma Favieres of the Spanish Committee for Refugee Aid (CEAR) denounced the reception Spain gives migrants as “chaotic.”
She said she notifies police whenever she believes a migrant is at risk of falling prey to human traffickers but stressed it was up to police “to fight against crime.”
“I don't get any help from the police,” she told AFP.
With migrant arrivals to Spain's southern shores on the rise, more of them are heading north to the border town of Irun, some sleeping rough as they wait to cross into neighbouring France, or to Santander, where police in August arrested two people for hiding migrants in their vehicle which was going to board a ferry bound for Britain.
Police smashed 25 human trafficking rings in Spain last year but many more remain active in Africa, recruiting more migrants.