By SYLVIA HUI, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — A coroner on Thursday opened an inquest into the death of a British woman who was exposed to Novichok, as British media reported that police may have identified suspects in an earlier attack on a former Russian spy using the same deadly nerve agent.
Senior coroner David Ridley headed a brief hearing Thursday, but said the cause of Dawn Sturgess’ death won’t be given until further tests are completed. He adjourned the proceedings until January to allow time for police inquiries to continue.
Sturgess, 44, and partner Charlie Rowley, 45, collapsed on June 30. Police say they had come into contact with a small bottle containing Novichok, a nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The pair was contaminated in the town of Amesbury in southwestern England, not far from the city of Salisbury, where Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with Novichok in March. Rowley and the Skripals survived, but Sturgess died July 8.
Britain blames Russia’s government for the March attack, a claim Moscow strongly denies. British police believe that the cases are linked. Top counterterrorism officer Neil Basu has said that although there is so far no forensic proof that the Novichok that poisoned Sturgess and Rowley came from the same batch used in March against the Skripals, any other explanation is extremely unlikely.
Earlier Thursday, Britain’s Press Association cited an unnamed person with knowledge of the investigation as saying that police believe they have identified “several Russians” as the perpetrators of the March attack, through study of closed-circuit TV footage and cross-checking that with records of people who entered the country around the time.
“They (the investigators) are sure they (the suspects) are Russian,” the report quoted the source as saying.
British officials declined to comment, though security minister Ben Wallace wrote on Twitter that he believed the report to be “ill-informed” and speculative.
The Russian ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, said he would not comment until he heard a confirmation from British authorities. “We work after all with official data, not with press reports,” he said.
“We would like to receive official information from the British authorities. We are interested in the real results of the probe,” he said, adding that he will try to organize a meeting with Britain’s foreign secretary to discuss it.
The attack on the Skripals has plunged relations between Russia and Britain to a new low, and sparked a wider diplomatic crisis that saw Russia and Britain’s Western allies expelling hundreds of diplomats.
Ridley, the coroner, said samples taken from both Sturgess and Rowley tested positive for Novichok at Britain’s defense research labs. He said a post-mortem examination was carried out on Sturgess on Tuesday but didn’t provide details.
Inquests are medical and legal hearings conducted in Britain in cases of unnatural, sudden or violent death. They do not apportion blame.
Angela Charlton contributed from Moscow.