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Britain demands Russia explain 'what has gone on' after latest nerve agent poisoning

British Prime Minister Theresa May and a police official visit the site where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found critically ill, in Salisbury, England, March 15, 2018. (Pool/Toby Melville via The New York Times/Copyright 2018)

LONDON - The British government on Thursday called on Russia to explain "exactly what has gone on" after a British couple fell into a coma following exposure to the same type of Soviet-era nerve agent used in March to poison a former spy and his daughter.

The latest health crisis involving the chemical Novichok came about 8 miles from the site where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his adult daughter, Yulia, were stricken four months ago.

The couple was exposed to the nerve agent after "handling a contaminated item," the Metropolitan Police said in an evening statement.

Investigators are now left trying to determine if this was residual contamination from the March attack - which British authorities linked to the Russian government. Moscow has categorically denied any involvement.

If remnants of the March attack are proven, it could raise wider concerns that health officials failed to eliminate exposure risks after an extensive clean up. But another, more troubling, scenario would be that it was a different batch of Novichok that sickened the British couple on Saturday in the small town of Amesbury.

"It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on," Sajid Javid, Britain's home secretary, told Parliament.

Witnesses told the British press that the couple - identified as Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44 - were frothing at the mouth and incoherent before lapsing into coma. They are now in critical condition at Salisbury District hospital, the same hospital where the Skripals were treated.

"It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets," Javid told Parliament, adding that it was also unacceptable for British streets or parks to be "dumping grounds for poison."

Russia hit back, urging Britain to avoid meddling in politics.

Maria Zakharova, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told reporters in Moscow that Britain should avoid "dirty political games" and should instead cooperate with Russian law enforcement.

The Russian embassy in London called for a joint investigation into the Salisbury incident.

The latest incident threatens to further sour British-Russia relations, which are already in the deep freeze following the attempted murder of the Skripals.

Britain condemned that attack as a hostile act by Russia and went on to expel 23 Russian diplomats. At least 26 other countries joined in retaliatory measures by also expelling Russian diplomats. British ministers and members of the royal family have also boycotted the World Cup in Russia.

"I know that many of you will question whether this incident is linked to that one," Javid said, referring to the Skripal poisoning. "That is clearly the main line of inquiry. However, we must not jump to conclusions and we must give the police the space and the time to carry out their investigations."

Officials have insisted that the risk to the wider public is low. They say that the current theory is that the British pair came into contact with nerve agent at a location not covered in Skripal decontamination sites.

Health officials have advised as a "highly precautionary measure" those who visited the sites that Rowley and Sturgess went to on Friday and Saturday should wash their clothes and wipe down their personal belongings, like phones and handbags. They also urged locals not to pick up any unknown items.

Britain's security minister, Ben Wallace, told the BBC that the "working assumption" is that the British pair were not directly targeted, and called on the Russian state to help by passing along details of the original attack.

"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 . . . They can come and tell us what happened. I'm waiting for the phone call from the Russian state."

Experts have also wondered if the latest victims may have come into contact with remnants of Novichok from the original attack.

"It's not looking like a new attack," said Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British Army's chemical and biological weapons unit. Although he is not directly involved with the current investigation, he said that "from what I understand, this is debris or collateral from the original attack, possibly contained in a syringe or medical container."

He said that the assailant could have discarded the residue Novichok four months ago in the park in Salisbury, or indeed in the nearby river, which is currently low at the moment.

"Why the couple then picked it up and became infected, we don't know. Probably just very bad luck," he said.

Authors information: Karla Adam is a London correspondent for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine. William Booth is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Jerusalem, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Miami. The Washington Post's Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.

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