Britain Suggests Russia Is Behind Latest Nerve Agent Case

LONDON — The police scoured the area around Salisbury, England, for a container of a deadly chemical weapon on Monday, as high-ranking British officials suggested for the first time that Russia was probably responsible for a second set of nerve agent poisonings in the region.

British officials have said that a couple who were sickened this month in the Salisbury area, one of whom died on Sunday, had been poisoned with the same powerful nerve agent used in March, a few miles away, against a former Russian spy and his daughter.

But while government officials have accused the Kremlin of responsibility for the first poisonings, until Monday they refrained from assigning blame for the second, though they acknowledged a strong possibility that the two were related.

“The simple reality is that Russia has committed an attack on British soil which has seen the death of a British citizen,” the defense minister, Gavin Williamson, said in the House of Commons. “That is something that I think the world will unite with us in actually condemning.”

Sajid Javid, the home secretary, who has acted as the government’s primary spokesman on the matter, was more cautious in addressing Parliament hours later. The investigation is still underway, he said, and the government will not jump to conclusions.

But when asked directly if Russia was responsible for the latest poisonings, he said it was hard to see any “other plausible explanation.”

Dawn Sturgess, 44, and her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley, 45, became ill on June 30 at Mr. Rowley’s home in Amesbury, a town near Salisbury, and were hospitalized. Ms. Sturgess, a mother of three who lived in Salisbury, died on Sunday, and the case is now a murder investigation. They had been exposed to an agent known as Novichok,

Dawn Sturgess, in a photo from social media.Creditvia Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has strenuously denied any involvement in either case, floating an array of theories about what might have happened and nominating an assortment of possible culprits.

The defense secretary’s accusation came a few hours after Britain’s top counterterrorism police officer, Neil Basu, made a sobering admission: Even after repeatedly searching the homes of the two recent victims and places they were thought to have been shortly before they took ill, hundreds of law enforcement officers and others combing the Salisbury area still have not found the object that poisoned them.

“Our focus and priority at this time is to identify and locate any container that we believe may be the source of the contamination,” Mr. Basu, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, told reporters outside New Scotland Yard.

That means it remains possible that someone else could be poisoned. “I simply cannot offer any guarantees,” he said, reiterating the government’s advice that people not pick up any unknown objects.

“Their reaction was so severe, it resulted in Dawn’s death and Charlie being critically ill,” Mr. Basu said. “This means that they must have got a high dose, and our hypothesis is that they must have handled a container we are now seeking.”

Chemical weapons experts say it was likely that whoever carried out the earlier attack transported the nerve agent in a sealed container, and discarded the container at another location, where it was found by Mr. Rowley or Ms. Sturgess. They say the poison could remain potent for months, particularly in a closed container.

Mr. Javid said, “the nerve agent that’s been used in this incident is the same as the March 4 incident, but we have not, the scientists have not been able to identify or determine if it is the same batch.”

On Monday, the authorities evacuated a bus in the city center and, for a few hours, established a wide security cordon around it, raising fears of another nerve agent incident. The police later said nothing out of the ordinary had been found.

A police officer was hospitalized out of fear that he might be showing symptoms of poisoning, but that, too, was a false alarm, and he was released.

The March attack sickened Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian intelligence agent who had sold information to Britain and was living in Salisbury; his daughter, Yulia S. Skripal, who was visiting from Russia; and Detective Sgt. Nick Bailey of the Wiltshire Police, who was one of the first officers to look into the case. All three survived; officials have not said publicly whether they have any lasting impairments.

Laboratory testing showed the substance that poisoned them was Novichok, the British government has said, part of a class of nerve agents developed first in the Soviet Union and later in Russia. That conclusion was supported by further testing by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that monitors compliance with a chemical weapons ban treaty.

The organization — at Britain’s behest and over Russia’s objections — recently decided that it will not only investigate whether chemical weapons have been used but will try to determine who used them.

The attack on the Skripals worsened the already tense relations between Russia and the West, prompting the expulsion of Russian diplomats and embassy workers from several countries and retaliatory expulsions by Moscow.

The British government has also promised to tighten controls on wealthy Russians who moved their assets in and out of Britain, a move seen as a blow to Mr. Putin’s powerful circle of allies, many of whom have ties to Britain.

British officials have said they will raise the Novichok attack at a meeting of the leaders of NATO countries.

Dawn Sturgess, British Woman Poisoned by Nerve Agent, Dies

LONDON — A 44-year-old British woman who was exposed to a nerve agent died on Sunday, bringing new urgency to a four-month-old diplomatic standoff in which Britain has accused Russia of sending the poison to a small city in southern England in a botched attempt to kill a former spy.

The British authorities have now opened a murder investigation.

“Today is the day we hoped would never come,” said Chief Constable Kier Pritchard of the Wiltshire Police.

The police say the woman, Dawn Sturgess, 44, was most likely exposed accidentally to residue from a Soviet-developed, military-grade nerve agent used in a March attack on the former spy, Sergei V. Skripal. He lived near Ms. Sturgess in Salisbury.

After Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, collapsed, British officials declared confidently that Russia was at fault, in large part because of the obscure poison involved. It was one of a strain of nerve agents known as Novichok that they say is kept under tight control by the Russian authorities.

Russia has denied any involvement.

In recent months, investigators have said little about the evidence they have gathered and they have named no suspects. And the Skripals recovered, allowing the crime to fall off the front pages.

Ms. Sturgess’s death is likely to change that, forcing Britain to reassert its suspicions just as Russia is enjoying an international spotlight as host of the 2018 World Cup.

“It becomes a murder, and it’s involving a British national rather than a Russian national,” said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a research group in London. “It stiffens resolve where resolve was ebbing.”

It also presents another urgent challenge for British authorities: The contamination, it appears, was more widespread than initially thought.

“It was widely assumed that, from the point of view of exposure, it was over,” Mr. Nixey said. “If there was still stuff out there in concealed containers, then I think they will be unusually worried. It is, after all, the first duty of the state to protect its citizens.”

Ms. Sturgess and her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley, 45, appear to have been accidental victims. Each had struggled with addiction, and when they fell ill on July 1, the police initially suspected an overdose or contaminated batch of drugs.

But their symptoms — foaming at the mouth, pinpoint pupils and hallucinations — were similar to those that had emerged with the three previous victims: the Skripals, and a detective who was exposed while responding to the crime.

Ms. Sturgess and Mr. Rowley were physically fragile after years of substance abuse, which compromises the liver’s ability to detoxify the body. Mr. Rowley remains in critical condition.

Dawn Sturgess in a photo from social media.

The police have said that the nerve agent that poisoned them on Saturday was the same type used on Mr. Skripal and his daughter in March, but could not confirm that it was the same strain or batch.

Neil Basu, a top counterterrorism official with the Metropolitan Police, said the authorities were continuing to look into possible connections with the poisoning of the Skripals.

“This terrible news has only served to strengthen our resolve to identify and bring to justice the person or persons responsible for what I can only describe as an outrageous, reckless and barbaric act,” Mr. Basu said in a statement on Sunday evening. “Detectives will continue with their painstaking and meticulous work to gather all the available evidence so that we can understand how two citizens came to be exposed with such a deadly substance that tragically cost Dawn her life.”

Ms. Sturgess’s son, Ewan Hope, 19, told The Mirror, a daily newspaper, that he had visited her in the hospital, but was allowed to touch her only while wearing gloves.

“I touched her hair through the gloves and told her: ‘I love you, Mum. I just want you to get better,’” he told the newspaper before she died. “I’m worried I’m going to lose my mum.”

In Facebook posts, Ms. Sturgess had written of her difficulty finding housing, but recently she settled into a room at John Baker House, a supported-living facility in Salisbury for people with drug and alcohol problems. Her posts brightened in February 2017 when she began her relationship with Mr. Rowley, a recovering heroin addict who rented an apartment in Amesbury, eight miles away.

“Fell in love … never bodes well for me,” she wrote. “I trust Charlie with my life and he gets me the best gifts ever.”

The police have meticulously traced the route that Ms. Sturgess and Mr. Rowley took during the hours before they collapsed, in an effort to find an object — perhaps an ampul or syringe — that the two had handled.

It is not yet clear how the British public will respond to Ms. Sturgess’s death, said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group in Washington.

“It’s a little bit like the election interference in the U.S. elections — the interference happens, and when new evidence shows up, the anger rises,” she said. “In this case you have the death of a person, which makes it different.”

Ms. Oliker called the attack on the Skripals a “strange case,” because it appeared to have been carried out carelessly.

“Past cases that looked similar were certainly much more professionally carried out,” she said. “This is sloppy — so much evidence left behind, material left behind where people could find it.”

After the new poisonings became public, Russia denied any involvement, and officials suggested alternative explanations. A Russian lawmaker said the British authorities might have concocted the case to sully Russia’s image while the country was hosting the World Cup soccer tournament.

Though there have been a string of suspicious deaths of anti-Kremlin figures in Britain in recent years, only one has culminated in a full investigation and extradition request. The victim was Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former Federal Security Service officer who was killed in 2006. He was served tea spiked with Polonium 210, a radioactive isotope.