By JILL LAWLESS AND NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — Ex-spy Sergei Skripal is improving rapidly and is no longer in critical condition, a British health official said Friday, a month after he and his daughter were poisoned with a rare nerve agent that triggered a diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West.
Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4 and were taken to a hospital, where for weeks they lay unconscious in critical condition. British authorities blame Russia for what they say was a military-grade Soviet-made nerve agent poisoning. Russia denies responsibility for the attack.
Dr. Christine Blanshard, the medical director at Salisbury District Hospital, said in a statement that 66-year-old Sergei Skripal "is responding well to treatment, improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition."
Yulia Skripal, 33, regained consciousness last week and is now in stable condition, Blanshard said.
Russian state television on Thursday played a recording of what they said was a phone call from Yulia to her cousin Viktoria Skripal in Russia. In it, Yulia said she would be discharged from hospital soon.
Blanshard said Friday that Yulia Skripal could "look forward to the day when she is well enough to leave the hospital," but called any speculation about her release date "just that — speculation."
The poisoning has chilled relations between Russia and the West, producing a wave of diplomatic expulsions unseen even at the height of the Cold War.
Britain, along with the United States and at least two dozen other U.K. allies, have expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats. Russia has ordered the same number of their envoys out.
On Thursday, Russia called a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the Skripal poisonings. The Russian ambassador to the U.N. warned Britain that it was "playing with fire" and claimed that Russia was the victim of a hasty, sloppy and ill-intentioned defamation campaign by London and its allies.
In the recording released by Russian state Rossiya TV on Thursday, Yulia Skripal allegedly said she and her father were both recovering and that her father's health was not irreparably damaged.
Viktoria Skripal, who works as a chief accountant in the city of Yaroslavl, told The Associated Press on Friday that she has no doubt that it was Yulia who called and that she has not heard from her since. She said the call was recorded because she has an app on her phone to keep track of all the calls she makes for work.
"I made this recording, that was Yulia," she said.
Viktoria Skripal has said she wanted to visit Sergei and Yulia and has applied for a U.K. visa. She told the AP that she was invited to come to the British Embassy on Friday afternoon, supposedly to pick up her visa, but the embassy emailed her earlier Friday to say the appointment has been canceled and that the decision on her visa application has not yet been made.
"They're not giving me a visa, they keep postponing it," she said Friday. "They told me to wait. They told me that everything depends on London and that (Prime Minister) Theresa May is on holiday so there is no one to sign on to this."
The Skripals' two guinea pigs and a cat were also victims of the poisoning, the British government said Friday. The two rodents were found dead at the Skripals' home after it was sealed off by investigators. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said Friday the cat was put down after it was found "in a distressed state."
Russia's Foreign Ministry was quick to react, questioning the decision. Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a Facebook post called the pets who lived at former double agent's home "important evidence" in the case.
Later Friday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov once again urged Britain to produce its evidence in the poisoning case.
Lavrov, speaking on a trip to Belarus, said British officials have engaged in "frantic and convulsive efforts to find arguments to support their indefensible position" instead of producing evidence.
He said Britain and its Western allies are wrong if they expect Russia to "confess to all deadly sins" it did not commit and "play by their rules."
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Danica Kirka in London and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.