MOSCOW (AP) — The two Russian men spun an unlikely tale of hapless tourists defeated by grim British weather: They traveled more than 1,000 miles to see England's famed Salisbury Cathedral but were turned back by slush and snow, then returned the next day and spent two hours exploring the "beautiful" city.
British officials had a more sinister explanation: Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were highly trained military intelligence agents sent by the Kremlin to Salisbury to smear a deadly nerve agent on the front door of a former Russian spy.
Petrov and Boshirov, both charged in absentia by Britain last week for trying to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with the nerve agent Novichok, went on the Kremlin-funded RT satellite channel Thursday to proclaim their innocence, deny they were agents of the military intelligence service widely known as the GRU, and say they were merely tourists in the city southwest of London.
"Our friends had been suggesting for quite a long time that we visit this wonderful city," Petrov said in the interview.
"They have a famous cathedral there," Boshirov said, adding studiously: "It is famous for its 123-meter spire."
James Slack, spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, derided their claims as "lies and blatant fabrications."
"More importantly, they are deeply offensive to the victims and loved ones of this horrific attack," he said.
Britain said the attack was almost certainly approved "at a senior level of the Russian state," an allegation that Moscow has vehemently denied.
Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer turned double agent for Britain, and his visiting daughter fell ill March 4 from what Britain says was a Soviet-developed nerve agent; an investigating police officer also was hospitalized for about three weeks. In June, two area residents who apparently came across a discarded vial that contained the poison fell ill, and one of them died.
Britain identified the Russian suspects last week and released security-camera photos of them in Salisbury on March 3 and 4.
The surprise TV appearance by Petrov and Boshirov came a day after President Vladimir Putin said Russian authorities know the identities of the two men but insisted that they were civilians and there is "nothing criminal" about them. He urged to contact the media, and Petrov said he heard Putin's statement on the radio and contacted Margarita Simonyan, RT's editor-in-chief who conducted the interview.
Petrov said that on their first trip to Salisbury, they were unable to make it from the train station to the cathedral — about 800 meters (half a mile) — because of snow and slush. Much of Britain suffered such weather that day.
The weather was better the next day, when the two were caught on camera at the Salisbury rail station at 11:48 a.m. Ten minutes later, another camera found them walking in the direction of Skripal's house — the opposite direction from the cathedral.
They again were recorded in the center of town an hour later and were at the station by 1:50 p.m., two hours after arriving.
"We walked around, enjoying those beautiful English Gothic buildings," Boshirov said. They got a flight back to Russia later that evening.
The men, who appeared to be about 40, claimed they did not know who Skripal was or where he lived.
Britain alleges the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals was carried in a perfume vial, which Boshirov dismissed by saying "Don't you think it's kind of stupid for two straight men to carry perfume for ladies?"
He bristled when Simonyan asked why the two men spent so much time together.
"Let's not breach anyone's privacy. We came to you for protection, but this is turning into some sort of interrogation," he said.
They declined to give any other details about their lives, except to say they work in the nutritional supplements business.
"The whole situation is an incredible, fatal coincidence, and that's that," Petrov said. "What is our fault?"
Both men looked composed during the interview, but Boshirov said, "We fear for our lives."
Boshirov did not react to the interviewer's request to show the pictures they took on that trip, only saying that he found Salisbury Cathedral "very beautiful."
John Glen, the Parliament member for Salisbury, offered a wry comment about the pair's visit to his town, tweeting: "Delighted to see that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were able to see the world-class attractions that Salisbury has to offer. But very strange to come all this way for just two days while carrying Novichok in their luggage."
Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed.