Salisbury novichok attack: Police 'identify several Russian suspects' in attempted murder of Skripals

Investigators 'are sure' Russians were behind attempted assassination of former spy

Chris Baynes,Adam Withnall
Thursday 19 July 2018 07:27
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Salisbury nerve agent attack: Sergei Skripal and daughter were poisoned with novichok on their front door

Police have reportedly identified the suspected perpetrators of the nerve agent attack on the Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal.

Detectives believe several Russians were involved in the attempted assassination of the former MI6 double agent and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March.

A source with knowledge of the investigation told the Press Association: “Investigators believe they have identified the suspected perpetrators of the novichok attack through CCTV and have cross-checked this with records of people who entered the country around that time. They are sure [the suspects] are Russian.”

The development came before an inquest opened on Thursday into the death of Dawn Sturgess, 44, who is believed to have come into contact with novichok from the same batch used in the attempted murder of the Skripals.

Her partner Charlie Rowley, 45, was also left fighting for his life after coming into contact with the nerve agent.

It is understood Ms Sturgess was exposed to at least 10 times the amount of nerve agent the Skripals came into contact with.

Investigators are working on the theory a discarded perfume bottle containing the toxin was found by the couple in a park or elsewhere in Salisbury city centre. It is thought Ms Sturgess sprayed novichok straight on to her skin, the source said.

Doctors at Salisbury District Hospital removed Ms Sturgess’s life support eight days after she was taken ill with “respiratory distress”, it emerged at the opening of her inquest.

Her sister Stephanie told a brief hearing in Salisbury she had been visiting the hospital when she was “informed that a decision had been made that the medical staff were going to turn off or reduce oxygen and this would likely result in Dawn’s death”.

“I then said my goodbyes to Dawn before leaving hospital,” she added.

The inquest heard that Ms Sturgess‘s body was left in the room where she died with guards outside overnight.

The following day her body was placed in a sealed bag with unique serial numbers and escorted by police to the location where a post-mortem examination was carried out.

David Ridley, senior coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon, adjourned the inquest to allow police investigations to continue.

On Wednesday, forensics officers carried out a a fingertip search of Salisbury’s Queen Elizabeth Gardens, where Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley had spent time before falling ill.

The park and other locations in Salisbury and nearby Amesbury were cordoned off last month as the pair fought for their lives.

Detectives have seized more than 400 items, many potentially contaminated, and have sent them to the government’s Porton Down defence laboratory for testing.

The items were mostly taken from Mr Rowley’s home in Amesbury, but waste and litter is also being removed as part of the sweep of public areas.

Last week counter-terrorism detectives revealed they had found a small bottle containing the novichok at Mr Rowley’s home in Muggleton Road.

They are trying to establish where the container came from, and how it came to be in his house.

Mr Rowley is reported to have told relatives he picked up the bottle and gave it to his partner.

Detectives are investigating the possibility that Ms Sturgess subsequently sprayed the novichok on her face and hands, believing it to be perfume, according to Sky News.

A team of international experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have been called in to independently investigate.

They have finished collecting samples which will now be analysed at two OPCW labs before the results are reported back to the UK.

Public Health England said the risk to the public remained low, but it continued to “strongly advise” people not to pick up any unknown “strange items” such as syringes, needles and cosmetics.

The British government has said it is “beyond reasonable doubt” that Russia is responsible for both poisoning incidents, but the Kremlin has denied any involvement and its state media has spread conspiracy theories.

A senior government scientific source has previously said the nerve agent could have been smuggled through a British airport in a “discreet” container.

He said the perpetrator of the original attack on Mr Skripal would have to be “highly trained” to deploy novichok without coming into contact with it, and may have worn protective equipment.

The difficultly of synthesising the chemical, which was first developed by the Soviet Union, and the danger of administering it are among the factors cited by the UK government as indicators of Russian responsibility.

“The use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international law,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said.

“The UK remains committed to upholding the integrity of the OPCW as the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention overseeing the global ban on their use.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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