Amesbury Novichok police operation ‘will take months’

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Media captionPolice search John Baker House where victim Dawn Sturgess lives

The police operation into the poisoning of a couple with a nerve agent in Salisbury is “expected to take months to complete”, officers have said.

Police believe Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44, were exposed to Novichok after handling an unknown object.

The pair remain in a critical condition in hospital a week after falling ill.

Their symptoms were the same as those of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, poisoned in March.

Image copyright Yui Mok/PA Wire
Image caption Police have cordoned off several areas including Rollestone Street in Salisbury,

Police in hazmat suits spent Friday searching John Baker House in Salisbury, the hostel where Ms Sturgess lives.

Officers are also looking through more than 1,300 hours of CCTV footage to identify when the couple came in contact with the nerve agent.

Police said the “unique challenges” surrounding the operation meant “police activity is expected to take weeks and months to complete”.

Novichok can be degraded by rainwater and sunlight over time – meaning it was probably discovered by the pair in a contained space, a government source said.

The government blamed the poisoning of the Skripals, both of whom have now left hospital, on the Russian authorities, something Russia denies.

Home secretary Sajid Javid has called on Russia to explain “exactly what has gone on” after another MP, Conservative Tom Tugendhat who chairs the foreign affairs committee, said the latest incident was the result of a “war crime” and “vile act of terror” by Russia.

Russia – which denies involvement in either incident – said the UK was trying to “muddy the waters” and “intimidate its own citizens”.

Extensive and painstaking search

By Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent

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Image caption Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley fell ill on Saturday in Amesbury, Wiltshire

The Amesbury investigation has entered a new phase.

Scientists and chemical weapons experts at Porton Down in Wiltshire are bracing themselves for an influx of countless objects all needing forensic analysis.

Investigators, led by the Met Police’s counter-terrorism detectives, are working on the basis that the pair – now critically ill from Novichok poisoning – handled a contaminated item that caught their interest.

They need to find it.

The item – or possibly items – are thought to be something found and touched by the pair, possibly something as innocuous as a perfume bottle or other luxury toiletry.

The search for this “source item” is likely to be extensive, painstaking and could last through the summer.

Who are the victims?

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Media captionFootage shows Ms Sturgess in Salisbury days before her collapse

Ms Sturgess is understood to be a mother of three who lives at the Salisbury hostel, which offers supported accommodation.

A close friend of Ms Sturgess’s, who also lived at John Baker House, described her as a “loving and caring person”.

Mr Rowley’s brother Matthew told the BBC: “He’s a lovely guy and would do anything for you. He’s a sweetheart basically.”

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Media captionCharlie Rowley’s brother Matthew describes how he found out what had happened

What happened to them?

On Saturday, paramedics were called twice to a flat in Muggleton Road in Amesbury – first at 11:00 BST after Ms Sturgess collapsed.

Medics attended again several hours later, after Mr Rowley also fell ill.

A friend of the couple, Sam Hobson, said after Ms Sturgess was taken to hospital, he and Mr Rowley went to a chemist in Amesbury to collect a prescription before going to an event at a nearby Baptist church.

The two men returned to the flat and planned to visit the hospital but Mr Rowley “started feeling really hot and sweaty” and began “acting all funny”, Mr Hobson, 29, said.

“He was rocking against the wall and his eyes were red, pinpricked, and he started sweating loads and dribbling, so I had to phone an ambulance for him,” said Mr Hobson.

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Media captionSam Hobson, a friend of one of the Amesbury poisoning victims, describes the symptoms he witnessed

Based on information from a friend and items found at the flat, Wiltshire Police initially thought the pair had fallen ill after using a contaminated batch of heroin or crack cocaine.

But after tests at the government’s military research facility at Porton Down, a major incident was declared and it was confirmed they had been exposed to Novichok.

What are the police investigating?

Police do not believe Mr Rowley and Ms Sturgess were victims of a targeted attack, but instead came into contact with the substance in Amesbury or Salisbury.

On Friday night, police revealed more details around the victim’s movements.

They said the pair were both at John Baker House at lunchtime on 29 June, before visiting a number of shops in Salisbury and heading to Queen Elizabeth Gardens.

They returned to the hostel at about 16:20 BST before heading to Amesbury by bus at about 22:30.

Image caption At midday on Friday, there was an increased police presence in Muggleton Road – where the couple were found – with fire engines also attending

Police believe they were there until emergency services were called on Saturday.

Five areas have been cordoned off: Muggleton Road, Boots pharmacy and the Baptist church in Amesbury; John Baker House and Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury.

Mr Javid said the “strong working assumption” was that the pair came into contact with Novichok in a location which had not been cleaned up following the Skripal poisoning.

Assistant Commissioner of Specialist Operations Neil Basu said that “around 100 detectives” from the Counter Terrorism Policing Network were working on the investigation.

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