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Pressure mounts on Russia to investigate Navalny's illness

MOSCOW – The Kremlin said Wednesday it doesn’t want the condition of sickened opposition leader Alexei Navalny to affect Russia's relations with the West as international pressure mounted on Moscow to investigate what caused the Russian politician to fall into a coma almost a week ago.

The Kremlin statement came two days after doctors at the Berlin hospital where the 44-year-old Navalny is being treated for suspected poisoning and minutes before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined other Western officials in demanding a transparent investigation.

“The poisoning of (Alexei) Navalny shocked the world,” Johnson tweeted. “The perpetrators must be held accountable, (and) the UK will join international efforts to ensure justice is done.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Wednesday that Moscow “categorically” disagreed with “hasty” conclusions that Navalny was a victim of an intentional poisoning, and said Moscow doesn't want the situation to affect its ties with the West.

“Of course, we wouldn't want that....Secondly, there is no reason whatsoever for it,” Peskov told reporters. “We are absolutely, no less than others, interested in understanding what led to a coma."

Navalny, a political party leader and corruption investigator who is one of Putin’s fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on Thursday and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.

Over the weekend, he was transferred to the Charité hospital in Berlin, where doctors found indications of “cholinesterase inhibitors” in his system.

Found in some drugs, pesticides and chemical nerve agents, cholinesterase inhibitors act by blocking the breakdown of a key chemical in the body, acetycholine, that transmits signals between nerve cells. Navalny is being treated in Berlin with the antidote atropine.

His allies say the Kremlin is behind the illness of its most prominent critic, accusations that officials denounced as “empty noise.”

The poisoning evidence identified in Germany contradicted statements by the doctors in Siberia who treated Navalny before he was flown to Germany at his wife's request last week.

The Russian doctors have repeatedly questioned the German hospital's conclusion, saying they had tested the politician for cholinesterase inhibitors and didn’t find any.

The chief doctor of Omsk Ambulance Hospital No. 1, Alexander Murakhovsky said Wednesday he sent a letter to German specialists asking them to provide “laboratory data, based on which they determined intoxication with cholinesterase inhibitors.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman, Ulrike Demmer, said Wednesday there was no reason to doubt the German doctors’ findings.

“From the side of the German government, there is the fullest trust in the work of the doctors,” Demmer said, adding that Germany takes the clinical evidence of a poisoning “very seriously.”

The pressure on Moscow mounted after Charité revealed its findings. Merkel called for a thorough investigation into Navalny's condition. Officials in France and Norway echoed her sentiment. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States “stands ready to assist” with a probe, if reports of a poisoning “prove accurate.”

Pompeo deputy Stephen Biegun met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other diplomats on Tuesday. According to Russia's Foreign Ministry, Biegun warned that if Navalny’s poisoning is confirmed, the U.S. could take steps that would exceed Washington’s response to findings of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Foreign Ministry said Russian diplomats warned Biegun against making unfounded accusations and noted that Russian authorities stand for a “thorough and maximally objective investigation of what happened.”

The Kremlin said Tuesday there were no grounds for a criminal investigation so far since it hasn’t been fully established what caused the politician to fall into a coma. Peskov said Navalny's condition may have been triggered by other causes.

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David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.