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How police painstakingly traced suspects in Skripal nerve-agent attack

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: how U.K. police were able to track suspects in Skripal case; weeks after a Toronto high-rise fire many of the 1,500 residents have nowhere to go; newly discovered 'superbug' is resistant to almost all antibiotics

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

In this handout photo issued by the London Metropolitan Police, Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are shown on CCTV on Fisherton Road, Salisbury, the day of the nerve-agent attack. (Metropolitan Police via Getty Images)

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  • How British investigators were able to track almost every step of the two Russian men they charged today in connection with the March 4 Novichok poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia
  • Weeks after a fire in a Toronto high-rise, many of the 1,500 residents still have no idea when they'll be able to return home — and nowhere to go in the meantime
  • Researchers in Australia have discovered a new and widespread "superbug" that is resistant to almost all antibiotics
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Tracking the Novichok suspects

There are somewhere between 4 million and 6 million CCTV cameras in the United Kingdom, according to the best estimates.

The Metropolitan Police in London operate 10,000 of them. The city's underground has 11,000 in use. And the major rail network that spans the country boasts 4,000 more.

All of which helps explain how British investigators were able to track almost every step of the two Russian men they charged today in connection with the March 4 Novichok poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern city of Salisbury.

Alexander Petrov, right, and Ruslan Boshirov are suspected of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. (EPA-EFE)
A team of 250 officers examined 11,000 hours of footage to zero-in on their suspects and then piece together how they carried out the attack.

Standing in the House of Commons this morning, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined the "painstaking and methodical work" that led police to identify and charge Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov in absentia with conspiracy to murder, attempted murder and possession and use of the deadly nerve agent. And to link the men to the later, presumably accidental, poisoning death of Dawn Sturgess and the sickening of her boyfriend Charlie Rowley.

May explained how the Russian pair arrived at London's Gatwick airport at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 2, aboard an Aeroflot flight. They then travelled to the city centre by train, taking the tube to their discount hotel near the main site of the 2012 Summer Games.

In this photo issued by the Metropolitan Police, Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are shown on CCTV at Salisbury train station on March 3. (Metropolitan Police via Getty Images)
They journeyed by train to Salisbury the next afternoon, on what police believe was a reconnaissance mission, returning to London two hours later.

May described how on Sunday, March 4, the day the Skripals fell deathly ill, the two men took a morning train to Salisbury. They were filmed walking along a road near Sergei's home just before noon. By late afternoon, they were back in London and one their way to Heathrow, where they boarded another Aeroflot flight to Moscow, touching down in Russia before British authorities even figured out what they were dealing with.

"There is no other line of inquiry beyond this," May told the Commons, saying her government believes the two men are agents of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service.

A still image from CCTV footage recorded on Feb. 27, 2018, shows former Russian spy Sergei Skripal buying groceries at the Bargain Stop convenience store in Salisbury. (AFP/Getty Images)
"As we made clear in March, only Russia had the technical means, operational experience and motive to carry out the attack."

At a news conference in London, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, a senior counter-terrorism investigator, released a dozen images of the men, showing their arrival on British soil, journeys in London and Salisbury, and eventual departure.

He confirmed the Russian passports were authentic and that the men had used them to enter the U.K. on several previous occasions. But Basu said that police assume the names the men used are aliases, and appealed for information about their true identities.

Police also disclosed new details about how the Novichok was smuggled into the country, providing pictures of a bronze-coloured Nina Ricci 'Premier Jour' perfume box and bottle. The manufacturer says both are fakes.

The counterfeit perfume atomiser found at the property of Novichok poisoning victim Charlie Rowley had a modified spray mechanism. (Metropolitan Police via Getty Images)
Detectives believe that the two men sprayed the nerve agent over Skripal's front door using a long white plastic spray nozzle.

In mid-June, Charlie Rowley found the perfume box and bottle inside a charity donation bin in the nearby town of Amesbury and took it home. He spilled some of the bottle's contents on his hands while attaching the nozzle. Sturgess, his partner, sprayed a great deal more on her wrists and fell ill almost immediately.

The U.K. has issued Europe-wide arrest warrants for the two suspects and has added their names to Interpol's red notice list, but there will be no formal extradition request as the Putin government will not allow its citizens to be tried overseas.

"Should either of these individuals ever again travel outside Russia, we will take every possible step to detain them, to extradite them and to bring them to face justice here in the United Kingdom," May told the House of Commons.

Yulia Skripal, who was poisoned in Salisbury along with her father, has recovered from the attack and is seen here speaking to reporters in London on May 23. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
And in the interim, the U.K. will push for new EU sanctions against Russia, and will step up counter-intelligence operations against the GRU, the prime minister added.

But justice will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

In Moscow, Yuri Ushakov, a senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that the names released by the British "do not mean anything to me."

Andrey Kortunoy, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, suggested that "two photos and two maybe fake names doesn't mean that much."

An exceptionally cool response in a renewed Cold War.

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After the fire: The residents of 650 Parliament St.

In late August a fire broke out in a downtown Toronto high-rise where 1,500 people lived. Nobody was killed in the blaze at 650 Parliament Street, but two weeks later residents still don't exactly how long it will be until they can move back in. The National sent reporter Nick Purdon and producer/videographer Leonardo Palleja to find out what the fire has done to people's lives.

Maria Daniel, 52, has rented a one-bedroom apartment at 650 Parliament Street in Toronto for 18 years. She shares the place with a friend who bunks on the couch. Daniel doesn't own a credit card and so she has had trouble finding any short-term accommodation since the high-rise fire.

"We tried to get hotels," says Daniel, "but in order to get them you need a credit card or something, but we don't have that."

Maria Daniel has had trouble finding any short-term accommodation since the fire forced her out of her home. (Nick Purdon/CBC)
Daniel and the other residents of the building have been allowed back into their apartments to get whatever belongings they can carry as long as they are escorted by security guards.

But once they pick up their possessions, the problem for many is where to go next. Many are low-income residents in a city with some of the highest rents and lowest vacancy rates in the country.

Jonathan Bakay from apartment 416 now sleeps on a cot in a downtown shelter.

"That apartment represented a lot to me because it was my first place that was just mine," Bakay says. "I got it all myself. No one helped me — it's my place. That was a big achievement in my life, to get to that point where I was completely self reliant."

A pair of Toronto law firms has begun the initial stages of a class-action lawsuit on behalf the building's residents. They hope to seek damages against the owners of the high-rise and Toronto Hydro.

650 Parliament Street is the only home nine-year-old Pema has ever known. 'I miss my home a lot,' she says. 'I miss the place where I sleep and stuff. Like the food and stuff.' (Nick Purdon/CBC)
Meanwhile, nine-year-old Pema Lhazom who has just started Grade 4 is worried that the disruption and being away from the only home she's ever known will mean she'll be late for school.

"That's what I don't really like," she says. "And I will have to get a late slip and that's what I don't like getting, because it goes on your report card. I don't like that because I miss lessons and stuff."

- Nick Purdon

  • WATCH: Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja's report on the people of 650 Parliament Street tonight on The National and streamed online

New superbug

Researchers in Australia have discovered a new and widespread "superbug" that is resistant to almost all antibiotics.

The mutated strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis, a common bacteria on human skin, may have been spreading undetected through hospitals for years, causing illnesses and deaths.

In a paper published this week in the journal Systems Biology and Applications, scientists from the University of Melbourne detail how they isolated the new superbug by studying samples from 78 different medical facilities in 10 countries. The most drug-resistant strains were from Europe.

Ben Howden, left, director of the University of Melbourne's Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory, and Jean Lee, a PhD student at Melbourne's Doherty Institute, inspect the superbug Staphylcocus epidermidis on an agar plate in Melbourne on Tuesday. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)
A complicating factor is that most people who carry the bacteria show no ill-effects. But in some weak and elderly hospital patients — especially those with implanted medical devices or who have recently had surgery — it can cause severe and difficult-to-treat infections.

The researchers say the overuse of antibiotics, particularly in intensive care units, may be contributing to its spread.

Superbugs are now believed to kill nearly one million people each year around the globe. The World Health Organization warns that we are heading for a "post-antibiotic era" unless immediate action is taken.

However, another new study published this week offers some hope.

Scientists at the University of California mixed-and-matched dosages of eight common antibiotics into 8,000 different combinations and discovered that the medicines are still potent if used in non-standard ways. Doctors have long been fearful of the potential side-effects of combining such drugs, but the research suggests the rewards may outweigh the risks.

Jean Lee hold an agar plate displaying a sample of Staphylcocus epidermidis. The superbug is resistant to all known antibiotics and can cause severe infections or even death. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)
And then there are the really innovative solutions.

A recent paper by a group of Russian and American biologists suggests that the saliva of the Siberian brown bear is able to kill Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, perhaps the most common superbug. The goal of the research is to isolate naturally occurring chemicals and compounds that might lead to future treatments for infections.

Though one imagines that there might be friendlier animals to tap for spit.

Last month, a trainee park ranger at Russia's South Kamchatka nature reserve was killed by a pair of brown bears when he ventured into the woods alone to retrieve a forgotten knapsack. This particularly vivid account from the Siberian Times suggests the young man didn't have time to make use of his gun or knife, or call for assistance on his walkie-talkie.

The bears were later shot by officials, for fears they had developed "a taste" for human blood.

A few words on …

Wanting to go home.

Quote of the moment

"We found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems we've acknowledged."

- Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tells a U.S. Senate committee that his company didn't anticipate how its social media platform could be "weaponized" and used to manipulate and divide the public.

Jack Dorsey, chief executive officer of Twitter, testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee at Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • 'I'm looking out your front door': Stranger had access to home's security cameras (CBC)
  • Lulu's likely heir charged with corruption ahead of Brazil's election (Al Jazeera)
  • Amazon joins Apple in the $1 trillion club (Financial Post)
  • Billionaire founder of Chinese tech firm arrested on rape allegations (CNN)
  • Eight bird species are first confirmed extinctions this decade (Guardian)
  • Why a 4,500 year-old skull is key to India's political divide (South China Morning Post)
  • Eurovision clashes with host-country Israel (Deutsche Welle)
  • Volvo reveals futuristic car that drives while you sleep (Telegraph)

Today in history

Sept. 5, 2001: Endangered species, industry vs. spotted owl

The northern spotted owl is relatively tiny — just 600 grams on average — but its well-being was at the centre of a big legal battle. In the early 2000s, environmentalists on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border launched legal to challenges to try and stop logging in the owl's old-growth habitat. In British Columbia, where there were no more than two dozen of the birds left in the wild, there were fears of impending extinction. Seventeen years later, the population remains highly endangered despite a captive breeding program.

Industry vs. spotted owl

21 years ago
Duration 2:11
Loggers and conservationists fight over coveted old-growth forest, an important habitat for a species of owl.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.