NZ govt defends Salisbury attack reaction

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters have been criticised for their response to the Salisbury attack.
Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters have been criticised for their response to the Salisbury attack.

After copping flak for saying it had no Russian spies to expel, New Zealand's government is now being accused of being soft in its initial response to an investigation into a chemical attack in Britain.

A formal statement it issued last week welcomed the UK's progress in identifying two people accused of deploying a nerve agent in Salisbury in March, but stopped short of condemning Russia.

It was in contrast to the comments of allies such as Australia, where Foreign Minister Marise Payne described "outrage at this dangerous and deliberate act by Russia".

"The government's written statement on this violent attack falls woefully short and is embarrassing," opposition National Party spokesman Todd McClay said on Monday.

"This attack was an appalling, violent breach of the sovereignty of one of New Zealand's closest friends."

Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters had already stepped up their comments and condemned Russia late last week, they did so in reply to media questions.

Ms Ardern on Monday defended the first statement and said she had always expected to make a stronger statement to media after being briefed.

"Anyone who uses such weapons must be held to account. We have absolute confidence in the UK's investigation," she told reporters.

New Zealand's government earlier this year also put free-trade talks with Russia on ice.

Mr Peters also strongly denied the government had been soft on the issue.

"Any perception the New Zealand government has not been strong and supportive of the international community is misguided," he said.

Earlier this year, Ms Ardern prompted mocking headlines in international media after saying no diplomats would be expelled from NZ over the attack because the Security Intelligence Service had found "we don't have Russian undeclared intelligence officers here".

However, the government has barred entry to those diplomats expelled from other countries in March, including two from Australia.

Australian Associated Press