European intelligence services, including the Dutch military intelligence and security service MIVD, detained two Russian spies in The Hague earlier this year on suspicion of planning a computer break-in at a Swiss lab, the NRC and the Swiss paper Tages- Anzeiger revealed on Thursday night.
The two men were preparing to travel to the Spiez lab in Switzerland, the papers say. At the time the lab was analysing data related to the poison gas attacks by the Syrian regime as well as the nerve agent attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury last March.
Sources around the investigation told the papers the two, who are thought to work for the Russian intelligence srvice GROe, had equipment in their possession which would allow them to break into the computer system of the laboratory.
The duo are not the men who go by the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov and who have been identified by the British government as Skripal’s attackers and GROe members.
The incident in The Hague was not made public at the time. However, prime minister Mark Rutte said on March 26 in a reaction to the Salisbury attack, that the government had decided to expell ‘two Russian intelligence agents working at the Russian embassy’.
The MIVD refused to comment on suggestions these could be the same men as the alleged spies, the NRC said.
Meanwhile the two would-be hackers have been the subject of a criminal investigation since March in Switzerland, the Bern prosecution office confirmed to the NRC.
The Spiez laboratory, which is the designated lab for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) seated in The Hague, said it had fended off an earlier attempt at stealing data by hackers. Despite this, a report on the Skripal case found its way into the hands of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who said he had got it from a ‘confidential source’, the paper writes.
The OPWC maintains it does not share lab reports from designated labs with member states.
The two men held responsible for the Skripal poison attack were revealed by Leningrad online paper Fontanka to have travelled extensively between September 2 and March 5 2018, visiting Moscow, Amsterdam, Geneva, Milan and Paris.
In an interview with Russian TV the men said they had nothing to do with the attack. Describing themselves as fitness product salesmen they claimed they were only in Salisbury to visit its cathedral ‘famous not just in Europe but in the whole world’.
The MIVD and general intelligence and security service AIVD have repeatedly warned that the Netherlands is being targeted by the Russian intelligence service. Home affairs minister Kasja Ollongren told MPs last year that intelligence agents are involved in covert operations to collect data.
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