U.K. official accuses Russia of using Britain as 'dumping grounds for poison,' after 2 fall ill
Kremlin had no involvement in nerve-agent attacks, spokesperson says
Britain's interior minister accused Russia on Thursday of turning the U.K. into a "dumping grounds for poison," and demanded an explanation on how two people were inadvertently poisoned with the same military-grade nerve agent used to attack a former Russian spy and his daughter in the same area four months ago.
A 44-year-old woman and a 45-year-old man were critically ill after an apparent chance encounter with the poison near the site of the March attack on ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Britain accused Russia of poisoning the Skripals with Novichok — a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military during the Cold War — in what is the first known offensive use of such a chemical weapon on European soil since World War II.
Police said the pair was poisoned after handling a contaminated item.
The working assumption would be that these are victims of either the consequences of the previous attack or something else, but not that they were directly targeted.- Ben Wallace, British security minister
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.
Russia, which is currently hosting the soccer World Cup, has denied any involvement in the March incident, and suggested the British security services had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Moscow hysteria.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that Britain had previously rejected Russia's offer for a joint probe. Peskov said "the British side has not presented any evidence of Russia's involvement in this, besides unfounded accusations."
Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany during a visit to Berlin, said it was "deeply disturbing" that two more people had been exposed to Novichok.
Nerve agent slow to decompose
The two Britons, who fell ill on Saturday, were initially thought to have taken an overdose of heroin or crack cocaine, but tests by the Porton Down military research centre showed they had been exposed to Novichok.
Britain should ask Russian experts to help investigate the poisoning, Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Russian parliament's defence committee, was cited as saying by the RIA news agency.
It is unclear how the two Britons, whose background has nothing to suggest a link to the world of espionage or the former Soviet Union, came into contact with the poison, which is slow to decompose.
"The working assumption would be that these are victims of either the consequences of the previous attack or something else, but not that they were directly targeted," Wallace said.
Paramedics were called on Saturday morning to a house in Amesbury after the woman, named by media as Dawn Sturgess, collapsed. They returned later in the day when the man, Charlie Rowley, also fell ill.
Amesbury is located 11 kilometres north of Salisbury, where Skripal — a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain's MI6 foreign spy service — and his daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench on March 4.
Health chiefs said the risk to the public was low, repeating their earlier advice, given after the Skripals fell ill, that the public should wash their clothes and use cleansing wipes to wash down personal items.
But the exposure of two British citizens to a such a dangerous nerve agent will stoke fears that Novichok could be lingering at sites around the ancient English city of Salisbury.
Andrea Sella, a professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London, said Novichok nerve agents were designed to be quite persistent and did not decompose quickly.
"That means that if a container or a surface was contaminated with this material it would remain a danger for a long time," Sella said. "It will be vital to trace the movements of this couple to identify where they might have come into contact with the source."
After the Skripal poisoning, police investigators in protective hazmat suits scoured Salisbury. They may return, police said.
The March attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War as allies sided with Prime Minister Theresa May's view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.
Moscow also hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services.
With files from The Associated Press