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UK couple was poisoned with Novichok, same nerve agent used on Russian ex-spy, police say

The two latest victims were found critically ill on Saturday in Amesbury, England, just 11km from where Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in March

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2018, 1:54am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2018, 7:08am

Two British citizens were poisoned with Novichok, the same nerve agent used to attack former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, at the weekend, the UK’s counter-terrorism head announced on Wednesday.

The British pair, a 44-year-old woman and a 45-year-old man, were found critically ill on Saturday in Amesbury, 11km from Salisbury – the city where the Skripals were found on March 4 slumped unconscious on a bench.

Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy poisoned by nerve agent, discharged from British hospital

Police did not name the couple, but friends have identified the man as Charlie Rowley and the woman as Dawn Sturgess.

“They remain in a critical condition,” said Deputy Chief Constable Paul Mills of Wiltshire Police, adding that at least five areas had been cordoned off, including a park and a property in Salisbury, and a pharmacy and a Baptist church community centre in Amesbury.

Neil Basu, Britain’s counterterrorism police chief, said on Wednesday that there was no intelligence to indicate that the two had been deliberately targeted. He also told reporters that police did not yet know how the Novichok nerve agent was transmitted.

Samples of the substance involved have been sent to the nearby military research centre of Porton Down for testing, a source close to the investigation said.

“At this stage it is not yet clear if a crime has been committed,” said Mills, who took the rare step of calling it a major incident. “We are keeping an open mind as to the circumstances regarding this incident.”

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Britain blamed the poisoning of the Skripals on Russia, prompting a serious diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Western states. Russia denied any involvement.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said the government’s emergency response committee had met to discuss the incident and would meet again on Wednesday evening.

Mills said paramedics were called on Saturday morning to a house in Amesbury after the woman collapsed and returned later in the day when the man also fell ill.

The pair, who are being treated at Salisbury District Hospital, were initially believed to have taken heroin or crack cocaine from a contaminated batch.

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“We are working with the police to understand the circumstances surrounding this incident and it would be inappropriate to make further comment at this time, while we establish how they became unwell,” said Cara Charles-Barks, the hospital’s chief executive.

The hospital is where the Skripals also spent weeks in critical condition before slowly recovering and being discharged.

Britain accused Russia of poisoning Skripal with Novichok nerve agent, the first known offensive use of such a chemical weapon on European soil since the second world war.

Moscow denied any involvement and suggested Britain had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

It has said it did not develop Novichok and that it does not possess such nerve agents.

President Vladimir Putin has dismissed as nonsense the notion that Moscow would have poisoned Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter.

The attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the cold war as allies in Europe and the United States sided with May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.

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Moscow has hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering its rival interpretations, including that the poisonings were part of a plot by British secret services.

Additional reporting by Associated Press