WEST Midlands UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge has defended his trip to Crimea where he criticised the Britain's involvement in airstrikes on Syria and called for public proof that Russia was behind the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.

Outlining the UK Government's belief that Russia was to blame, Prime Minister Theresa May told the Commons last month that "no other country has a combination of the capability, the intent and the motive to carry out such an act".

But at the International Economic Forum conference in Yalta in the Crimea, Mr Etheridge was reported to have said there was "murky water" in the case involving the Skripals - and "a lot of things that are unexplained".

He also spoke critically about Western intervention in Syria - after the UK, US and France launched air strikes following an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian government which killed more than 80 people.

Purple party leader Gerard Batten, however, has hit out over Mr Etheridge's comments and visit to Crimea, officially part of the Ukraine but which voted to join Russia in a referendum deemed illegal by the West.

He said: "It is one thing for a UKIP politician to ask critical questions of Her Majesty's Government regarding such issues as the bombing of Syria and the attack on Sergei Skripal, but it is quite another to do that on the territory of what must be considered at this time an unfriendly and potentially hostile nation. This is to potentially bring the party in disrepute."

Mr Etheridge's trip to Crimea, which he undertook with his chief of staff Paul Brothwood and assistant Alex Hickinbottom, was reportedly not sanctioned by UKIP leaders and the party's foreign affairs chiefs and it came five weeks after Mr Batten told UKIP MEPs they should not travel to Russia to scrutinise the presidential election given the tensions with the UK.

The Foreign Office currently advises UK citizens against travelling to Crimea - and a spokesman said: "The UK and our EU partners do not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. Russia’s control over the peninsula remains illegal and illegitimate."

Mr Batten said: "In view of Mr Etheridge's failure to inform anyone of authority in UKIP of his trip, and refusal to answer reasonable questions about it, the party leader has referred the matter to the party chairman and the NEC as a disciplinary measure.

"The chairman and the NEC will consider the matter when they next meet on May 13."

Mr Etheridge, however, has branded Mr Batten's stance "petulant" and he told the News he was acting independently, adding: "I'm not a member of Gerard's front bench team; UKIP has no policy on Crimea at all - I've asked for it. In these circumstances his comments are irresponsible. I shall be ignoring him and doing what I think is right - for the people of Dudley and the UK. In this instance Gerard is wrong."

He said he went to Crimea because "it's an economic forum with lots of investment from around the world" - adding: "I made a point of promoting the West Midlands as a good place to do business."

And he continued: "I went to have open dialogue with people - to talk and find out exactly what's going on. I for one do not believe everything the British government tells me. After Iraq and Brexit, only a fool would believe what the government tells them."

The decision to splash out on attending the conference in Crimea just days before the local election was also defended by both Mr Etheridge and Mr Brothwood, both councillors on Dudley Council who are currently campaigning to keep their seats.

Mr Etheridge said the party was on the "verge of holding a lot of seats in Dudley" - while Mr Brothwood said UKIP has "been campaigning for the last four years - just because other parties come out of the woodwork just before the election it doesn't mean we do".

He stressed the two-day Crimea trip was personally paid for - not funded by UK taxpayers and "certainly not paid for by the Russians". He added: "It was expensive but we thought it was worthwhile as we were there to help with the peace process. It's a great shame other parties aren't reaching out for a peaceful solution."

He said Crimea "didn't feel hostile" and added: "It was very friendly - there was no issue at all. We were just there to hear the other side."