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Emergency workers in military protective suits search the fenced off John Baker House for homeless people on Rollestone Street in Salisbury Matt Dunham via PA Images

Novichok poisoning: Police search for container they believe couple 'must have handled'

Dawn Sturgess and a man named locally as Charlie Rowley (45) fell ill last weekend in Amesbury, near the town of Salisbury.

LAST UPDATE | 9 Jul 2018

BRITISH POLICE HAVE launched a murder investigation after a woman died following exposure to the nerve agent Novichok, four months after the same toxin nearly killed a former Russian spy in an attack that Britain blamed on Moscow.

Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “appalled and shocked” by the death of Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother of three who had been living in a homeless hostel in Salisbury in southwest England.

Sturgess and Charlie Rowley (45) fell ill last weekend in the town of Amesbury, near Salisbury, the city where former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked with Novichok in March. They have since recovered.

London’s Metropolitan Police has confirmed that it has launched a murder investigation into the death of Sturgess.

The British government has called a meeting of its COBRA emergencies committee for 1pm.

The Kremlin said it would be “absurd” to suggest Russia was involved in the death of Sturgess.

“We don’t know that Russia has been mentioned or associated with this,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“We consider that in any case it would be quite absurd.”

Russia is “deeply concerned by the continuing appearance of these poisonous substances on British territory,” which “present a danger not just for the British but for all Europeans,” Peskov added.

Britain and its allies accused Russia of trying to kill the Skripals, prompting angry denials and sparking an international diplomatic crisis.

‘No guarantees’

Police said they could not yet say whether the nerve agent in the Amesbury case was linked to the Salisbury attack – but it was their main line of inquiry.

The head of Britain’s counter-terror police, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, said: “At this stage, they are unable to say whether or not the nerve agent found in this incident is linked to the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. However, this remains our main line of enquiry.

The investigation must be led by the evidence available and the facts alone.
Our focus and priority at this time is to identify and locate any container that we believe may be the source of the contamination.

He added that he could not rule out further contaminations.

“I simply cannot offer any guarantees,” said Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, who is leading the investigation.

He said people in Salisbury should not pick up strange items such as needles, syringes or unusual containers.

Whilst 21 other people have come forward with health concerns, they have been screened and “all been given the all-clear”, he said.

Police and public health officials insist the risk to the wider public remains low.

‘Contaminated item’

Police said that given the deadly dose, the British couple were believed to have become exposed to Novichok by handling a “contaminated item”, with speculation that it could have been the container used to administer the nerve agent to the Skripals.

“In the four months since the Skripals and Nick Bailey were poisoned, no other people besides Dawn and Charlie have presented with symptoms,” Basu said.

“Their reaction was so severe, it resulted in Dawn’s death and Charlie being critically ill. This means that they must have got a high dose and our hypothesis is that they must have handled a container we are now seeking.”

Amesbury incident Police activity in Queen Elizabeth Gardens, Salisbury, Wiltshire, where counter-terrorism police are investigating Stefan Rousseau Stefan Rousseau

Christine Blanshard, medical director at Salisbury District Hospital, where Sturgess and Rowley were being treated and where the Skripals were hospitalised, told The Daily Telegraph newspaper that staff had “worked tirelessly to save Dawn”.

“This latest, horrendous turn of events has only served to strengthen the resolve of our investigation team as we work to identify those responsible for this outrageous, reckless and barbaric act,” said Basu.

He said Rowley remained critically ill in hospital.

‘Praying for Charlie’

Residents of the homeless hostel in Salisbury where Sturgess lived, which was evacuated after the couple fell ill, expressed their devastation at the news of her death.

“It could easily have happened to anyone, to me or my partner,” 27-year-old Ben Jordan told AFP. “We are really, really sad. I am praying for Charlie.”

In a statement this afternoon, Wiltshire Police Chief Constable Kier Pritchard said: “I wish to pass on our sincere condolences to Dawn’s children, her wider family and friends at this terrible time.

I cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering they must be feeling, coupled with all the questions they clearly need answers to.

“I know this news will affect more people than just those who knew Dawn. In addition to her family and friends, I appreciate it is highly likely this will send a huge shockwave across our communities.”

Amesbury incident The main entrance to Salisbury District Hospital, where Sturgess and Rowley were taken to PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

Around 100 counter-terrorism officers are helping in the investigation, which police said on Friday could take “weeks and months”.

So far, there is no evidence that the couple visited any of the sites involved in the Skripal case.

In his statement, Basu said: “As I’ve said before, there is no evidence that either Dawn or Charlie visited any of the sites that were decontaminated following the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”

Sturgess collapsed on the morning of 30 June and was taken to hospital. That afternoon, Rowley fell ill at the same address in Amesbury and was also hospitalised.

On Wednesday, the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down confirmed their exposure to Novichok.

Police said yesterday they were not yet able to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skripals were exposed to.

The Skripals have been released from hospital but the investigation into the attack on them continues. No arrests have been made.

© – AFP, 2018

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