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Counter-terror police investigates Wiltshire Novichok poisoning

Nerve agent used on critically ill UK couple same as that used on former Russian spy
08:08, 5 July 2018

The Independent

An urgent investigation is being conducted to discover how a British couple have been left critically ill by the nerve agent Novichok, the same military-grade poison that nearly killed a former Russian spy and his daughter four months ago. This was reported by the Guardian.

Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, announced that expert scientists in chemical warfare at the world famous Porton Down laboratory had established that Novichok had caused the collapse in Wiltshire of British nationals Dawn Sturgess, 44, from Salisbury, and Charlie Rowley, 45, of Amesbury.

They were taken ill at their home on Saturday, 8 miles (12km) from the Salisbury home of Sergei Skripal, who sold Russian secrets to Britain, and his daughter Yulia. They were attacked with Novichok smeared on to their front door in March.

Britain holds Russia responsible for the attack on the Skripals in an incident that led to widespread criticism of the Kremlin and soured relations with the west.

Initially, police thought that drugs had caused Sturgess and Rowley’s severe illness. But British security officials said the Porton Down test results on Wednesday showed Novichok, developed by the Russian military, was to blame for the poisoning. They believed the danger to the public posed by the highly toxic materials used in March had been cleaned up and had thus passed.

Related: Poroshenko urges world to react on Ukrainian political prisoner as on Skripal's poisoning

They were taken to the Salisbury district hospital where the Skripals were treated.

Basu, an assistant commissioner with the Metropolitan police who leads the police counter-terrorism network said: “From initial assessment, it was thought that the two patients had fallen ill after using drugs from a potentially contaminated batch.

“They [the authorities] have never been able to ascertain the item used to deposit the Novichok and it’s possible the pair have come into contact with that item”, the source said.

It is understood investigators are working on a theory that the pair came into contact with the substance in a part of Salisbury city centre that was outside the original clean-up area.

Throughout Wednesday, after the local Wiltshire police declared a major incident, and while the Porton Down test results were awaited, several sites were cordoned off as a precautionary measure while the couple’s exact movements from around 10pm on Friday were tracked. Basu said there was nothing in the backgrounds of Sturgess or Rowley that would suggest they would be a target for a deliberate attack – they have no connections to the intelligence or security communities.

Flanked by the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, and amid speculation the British couple had been struck down by sites still contaminated after the attempted assassination of the Skripals, Basu said: “I do want to reassure the public, however, that there is no evidence that either the man or woman recently visited any of the sites that were decontaminated following the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”

Related: Doctors who treated Skripals are not sure about their further health state

The Wiltshire area will see scores of counter-terrorism investigators and others in protective suits searching for evidence in the days to come. Basu said it would be up to scientists at Porton Down to determine if the British couple were poisoned by the same batch of Novichok used against the Skripals: “I appreciate that there will be a great deal of speculation as to whether this incident is linked to the events in Salisbury in March.

“I would add that the complex investigation into the attempted murders of Yulia and Sergei remains ongoing and detectives continue to sift through and assess all the available evidence and are following every possible lead to identify those responsible, for what remains a reckless and barbaric criminal act.

“However, I must say that we are not in a position to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skripals were exposed to. The possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of enquiry for us.”

Davies said the risk to the public remains low. Home secretary Sajid Javid will chair a meeting of the government crisis committee Cobra.

As it was reported earlier, the police concluded the investigation of every sector connected with the incident in Salisbury, except the former house of Skripal. Supporting Britain, more than 30 states, including Ukraine, announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats as a reaction to the incident in Salisbury. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry stated that 13 Russian diplomats, who were expelled, are the representatives of Russian special service. 

Related: Yulia Skripal hopes to return to Russia

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