AMESBURY, England (AFP, REUTERS) - Britain is holding an emergency Cabinet meeting on Thursday (July 5) over a couple who were left critically ill after being exposed to the same nerve agent used on a former Russian spy earlier this year.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid will be chairing the talks in London, as counter-terrorism police lead an investigation into the incident in Amesbury, a village in southwest England.
The poisoned pair, a local 44-year-old woman and a 45-year-old man, were hospitalised after being found unwell on Saturday in Amesbury, just kilometres away from Salisbury where ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked in March.
“I have received test results from Porton Down (military research centre) which show that the two people have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok,” Neil Basu, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, told reporters.
Britain has accused Russia of poisoning the Skripals with Novichok – a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military during the Cold War – in what is the first known offensive use of such a chemical weapon on European soil since World War II.
Russia has denied any involvement in their poisoning.
British counter-terrorism police are now leading the investigation, though Basu said it was unclear how the two people came into contact with the nerve agent or whether they had been specifically targetted.
“I don’t have any intelligence or evidence that they were targeted in any way,” Basu said. “There is nothing in their background to suggest that at all.”
Amesbury is located 11km north of Salisbury, where Skripal – a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service – and his daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench on March 4.
Around 100 counter-terrorism officers are working on the case and police have cordoned off at least five different areas, including a park and a property in Salisbury, as well as a pharmacy and a Baptist church community centre in Amesbury.
The March attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War as allies in Europe and the United States sided with Prime Minister Theresa May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.
Mystery surrounds the attack and the motive is unclear, as is the logic of using such an exotic nerve agent which has overt links to the Soviet military during the Cold War.
Russia, which is currently hosting the soccer World Cup, has denied any involvement in the March incident and suggested Britain had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Moscow hysteria.
Moscow also hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services. Russian officials questioned why Russia would want to attack an ageing turncoat who was pardoned and then traded in a Kremlin-approved 2010 spy swap.
Health chiefs said on Wednesday the risk to the public was low, though the exposure of two people apparently unconnected to espionage or the former Soviet Union will stoke fears that traces of the nerve agent remain in the area.
“As the country’s chief medical officer, I want to reassure the public that the risk to the general public remains low,”England’s Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies told reporters.
Prime Minister May’s spokesman said the government’s emergency response committee had met to discuss the incident. Home Secretary Sajid Javid will chair a meeting of the emergency response committee on Thursday.
“The working theory is currently that this exposure was accidental, rather than a second attack along the lines of that on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury earlier this year,”Javid said.
After the Skripal poisoning, police investigators in protective hazmat suits scoured the ancient English cathedral city of Salisbury. Basu cautioned that police in protective clothing would return to the area.
Paramedics were called on Saturday morning to a house in Amesbury after the woman, named by media as Dawn Sturgess, collapsed and returned later in the day when the man, Charlie Rowley, 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, police said.
But tests showed they had been poisoned with Novichok.
“We are not in a position to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skripals were exposed to,” Basu said. “The possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of enquiry for us.”
The hospital is where the Skripals also spent weeks in a critical condition before slowly recovering and being discharged.
Local man Sam Hobson, 29, told AFP he was a friend of the pair and said he saw the man fall ill.
“He was sweating loads, dribbling, and you couldn’t speak to him, he was making funny noises and he was rocking backwards and forwards,” Hobson said. “It’s like he was in another world.” .
Helplines for residents
In Salisbury, local residents said they were “shocked” that their quiet area was again hitting the headlines.
“I was shocked to hear that something had happened so soon after the last contamination scare,” Patrick Hillman, 70, told AFP. The Skripal poisoning “really affected business and life in general in Salisbury” in recent months, he said.
“It is a bit of a scare,” said John Reid, 84. Police launched two helplines for those worried about possible contamination. “We cannot underestimate the impact the shocking news of a second major incident in this part of our county in such a short space of time will have,” Wiltshire Police Chief Constable Kier Pritchard said in a statement.
Police called for calm but also said that anyone who had visited any of the five sites that the man and the woman went to on Friday and Saturday should wash clothing worn at the time and wipe down personal items.
The sites, which have now been cordoned off, are a park and a homeless hostel in Salisbury, as well as a pharmacy, a church and the house in Amesbury.
‘Such a quiet place’
Local resident Natalie Smyth, 27, told AFP she saw fire engines and ambulances arrive at the house on Saturday.
“They shut the road. They said it was a chemical incident and then that it was drug-related. “It is so strange, it is such a quiet place,” she said, indicating that the emergency services personnel were wearing protective suits.
The police said local residents should expect to see officers in protective suits at “a number of sites” in the coming days.
Skripal, 67, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, who was visiting from Moscow, were treated for an extended period of time before being released from hospital. A police officer who came to their aid, Nick Bailey, was also taken to hospital.
The police said they suspected the nerve agent may have been smeared on a front door handle in liquid form. Moscow has rejected British accusations of involvement in the Skripal poisoning, which sparked a diplomatic crisis that saw Russia and the West expelling dozens of diplomats in tit-for-tat moves.
Yulia told Reuters in May: “We are so lucky to have both survived this attempted assassination. Our recovery has been slow and extremely painful.” Russia has said it does not possess such nerve agents, did not develop Novichok, and President Vladimir Putin dismissed as nonsense the notion that Moscow would have poisoned Skripal and his daughter.