Britain has called on Russia to explain the latest nerve agent poisoning incident in southern England, which has left two people critically ill in hospital.
UK’s Interior Minister Sajid Javid confirmed an earlier police statement that a man and a woman – both British nationals – were exposed to the nerve agent Novichok – the same substance that poisoned former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia earlier this year.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, were found unconscious at a house on Saturday in the town of Amesbury, near Salisbury, where the Skripals were were found slumped on a bench on March 4 in an incident that sparked a diplomatic crisis with Russia.
“It is unacceptable for our people to be deliberate or accidental targets,” said Javid at an emergency cabinet meeting in London on Thursday, adding that he expects “further disinformation from the Kremlin” on the latest nerve agent attack.
“Eyes are on Russia because of the World Cup,” he told parliament. “It is time for the Russian state to explain what has gone on”.
Britain has 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.
Javid revealed that 100 counterterrorism detectives were working on the latest case.
The UK government has notified the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of the incident in Amesbury, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman told reporters on Thursday.
Police on Wednesday cordoned off the places that it believed the duo had frequented as a precaution and urged people who had visited those areas to wash their clothes.
“It’s not just sites in Amesbury that have been cordoned off, but also by geographical coincidence, in Salisbury as well, like here in the Queen Elizabeth Gardens not too far away from where the Skripals were found when they were poisoned earlier this year,” said Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego, reporting from Amesbury.
Salisbury came under intense scrutiny when the Skripals fell victim to poisoning by the nerve agent Novichock.
Tensions in UK-Russian relations escalated after the British government alleged that Russia was behind the attempted assassination – accusations that Moscow has vigorously denied.
On Thursday, Britain’s Security Minister Ben Wallace called on Russia to give details about the nerve agent attack on the Skripals.
“The Russian state could put this ‘wrong’ right, they could tell us what happened, what they did and fill in some of the significant gaps that we are trying to pursue,” Wallace told BBC radio.
Separately, Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Russian parliament’s defence committee, said that Britain should ask Russian experts to help investigate the latest poisoning, RIA news agency reported on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, told state TV that the new poisoning incident looked like an attempt to spoil England football fans’ positive perception of Russia as it hosts the World Cup for the first time.
“It is unsurpring that in Russia you are hearing a lot of the same messaging coming out now about this latest case as it did in the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning in March,” said Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Moscow.