Sunday 20 January 2019

Fears sick couple were poisoned by nerve agent from attack on Skripals

New victims were 'like zombies', says friend

A police officer stands at a cordon at Queen Elizabeth Gardens, Salisbury, close to where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found
A police officer stands at a cordon at Queen Elizabeth Gardens, Salisbury, close to where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found
Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley

Kim Sengupta and Lizzie Dearden

A critically ill couple may have been contaminated by residues of the nerve agent used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal, according to security and defence sources.

The new victims are likely to have been affected by Novichok used in the attack on the former MI6 agent and his daughter four months ago, tests conducted at the UK Ministry of Defence research laboratory at Porton Down have indicated.

Initial investigations have found nothing to indicate Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, who collapsed hours apart on Saturday, had any link with the Russian father and daughter or are likely to have been targeted in an assassination attempt.

The security agencies and Scotland Yard's counterterrorism command say they are keeping an open mind about what lay behind the couple's sudden illness as they remain in a critical condition in hospital.

But there will be deep concern about public safety if the Novichok connection is proved after authorities declared the area safe following the March attack, reopening businesses in Salisbury ahead of a royal visit.

Police initially believed Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley had ingested contaminated heroin or crack cocaine, which have been reported in the Wiltshire area. The symptoms shown by the couple and their rapid deterioration made them realise other factors were at work.

The couple were, it is believed, in Salisbury last Friday near roads which had been sealed off during the Skripal inquiry. However, at least one other person who was with them at the time is yet to show any symptoms.

Tracing Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley's movements may help the continuing police investigation into the Skripal case, sources said.

They are both being treated in isolation and under police guard at Salisbury district hospital, which previously treated Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia for exposure to Novichok.

A Downing Street spokesperson said: "This is an incident which understandably is being treated with the utmost seriousness. Ministers and the prime minister are being kept updated and there was a meeting this morning of officials to receive updates on the facts of the situation."

Police have cordoned off several sites visited by the pair, including a park and supported accommodation for homeless people in Salisbury, Mr Rowley's home in Amesbury, and a chemist and Baptist church he visited before falling ill.

Queen Elizabeth Gardens sits just metres away from where the Skripals were found unconscious on a bench in The Maltings shopping district of Salisbury, while John Baker House is just a four-minute walk from a Zizzi's restaurant where the victims ate.

Public health officials initially said there was no risk to the public in March, but later told diners to wash their clothing and jewellery as military personnel moved in wearing protective suits to cordon off potentially contaminated sites.

When decontamination work started in April, a Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) official revealed Novichok had been spread on Mr Skripal's front door in liquid form and spread around Salisbury by infected people.

The poison could "move between sites by direct transfer by a contaminated person or item" and warned that it "doesn't just disappear".

Defra's chief scientific adviser, Ian Boyd, confirmed the substance could still be toxic in some locations but in May officials reopened The Maltings shopping area and declared it safe.

Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley spent last Friday evening in Salisbury with friend Sam Hobson (below), who saw them both fall ill the following day. The 29-year-old said he witnessed Ms Sturgess being carried into an ambulance at around 11am after she fell unconscious.

"She was having assistance with her breathing," he said. "Paramedics said they needed to do a heart and brain scan and so Charlie and I were told we couldn't see her. Charlie was fine at first."

Mr Hobson said the couple, aged in their 40s, have one daughter each from previous relationships and have been together for several months.

He recalled taking Mr Rowley to collect a prescription from Boots in Amesbury and on to eat lunch at Amesbury Baptist church fair, before returning to his friend's home in Muggleton Road. Both the church and chemist have now been cordoned off.

Mr Hobson said Mr Rowley started falling ill around four hours after Ms Sturgess was taken to hospital.

"He felt ill and went for a shower. Then his eyes went bloodshot and like two pin pricks, he began garbling incoherently... he was making weird noises and acting like a zombie. It was a zombie-like state. He slumped against the wall."

Mr Hobson described frantically calling an ambulance, adding: "This doesn't make any sense, I can't see why they'd be targeted."

He has not been tested for possible exposure but said authorities are making regular checks on his health.

Families were told to stay indoors for several hours and a hosepipe was connected to the water mains - a common procedure for decontamination.

Irish Independent

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