UK town faces new reality: another nerve-agent poisoning

Associated Press


In this normally pleasant town of 10,000 residents a stone’s throw from the mysterious Stonehenge monument, the new reality is sinking in: Novichok, again.

Four months had passed since the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter, and the collective nightmare seemed to be fading. No longer were forensics experts in oversize hazmat suits combing the area for an invisible killer developed by the Soviet Union in Cold War times.

Eager tourists, drawn by an unusually long spell of glorious summer weather, were back at Stonehenge, and England’s World Cup team was surging, buoying spirits. Then a local couple with no obvious connection to Russia or to espionage fell desperately ill, and the government said Novichok was to blame.

Some are embracing the “keep calm and carry on” ethos that helped England through two world wars, but others were frightened by the seemingly random poisoning of two innocents who now lie critically ill in a local hospital.

“It’s shocking, and it’s scary,” said Elaine Read, a worker at The Kings Arms pub who used to occasionally share a pint with Dawn Sturgess, one of the victims. “Nobody expected it to happen again. Everyone was saying it was Russia, but now it’s just two ... local people. They’re just like us.”

She said it’s difficult to feel safe after what happened to Sturgess, 44, and 45-year-old Charlie Rowley. Both became violently ill within hours of each other on Saturday. At first, authorities believed they had taken some bad heroin or crack cocaine, but it turned out to be Novichok.

British police confirmed late Thursday they were exposed to the toxin by handling a contaminated item.

The bizarre case, combining elements of a murder mystery and a spy thriller, is stoking international tensions ahead of next week’s NATO summit, which will deal in part with worsening relations between Russia and the West.

Britain’s interior minister demanded Thursday that Russia explain how two people were inadvertently poisoned with the same military-grade nerve agent used to attack ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the nearby town of Salisbury in March.

Britain has accused Russia of being behind the attack on the Skripals, which the Kremlin vehemently denies. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Thursday that it is now time for Russia to explain “exactly what has gone on.”

“It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison,” Javid said.

In Amesbury, residents were advised to wash their clothes and take other precautions if they were at the locations believed to have been frequented by the latest victims.

Some were staying inside to avoid any risk of contamination, but most were going about their business.

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