UK: Nerve agent attack on ex-spy was ‘brazen and reckless’

Photo showing members of UK emergency services in green biohazard suits work where a Russian ex-spy and his daughter were found on Mar. 4, in critical condition in Salisbury, southern England, Mar 8, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 08 March 2018
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UK: Nerve agent attack on ex-spy was ‘brazen and reckless’

LONDON: Whoever attacked a former Russian spy with a rare nerve agent is guilty of a “brazen and reckless act,” and Britain’s government will act on it without hesitation when it becomes clear who is responsible, the minister in charge of domestic security said Thursday.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the House of Commons that enormous resources are being used to determine who is responsible for poisoning Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33. The pair were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury on Sunday, triggering a police investigation that is being led by counterterrorism detectives.
“The use of a nerve agent on British soil is a brazen and reckless act,” she said. “This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way. People are right to want to know who to hold to account. But if we are to be rigorous in this investigation we must avoid speculation and allow the police to carry on their investigation.”
While police have refused to speculate on who is behind the attack, many have focused on Russia because of the case’s similarity to the 2006 killing of another former Russian spy who was poisoned in London with radioactive polonium-210. A public inquiry found that Russia was responsible for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and that President Vladimir Putin probably approved it.
Skripal and his daughter are in critical but stable condition at a hospital in Salisbury. A police officer who came to their aid is in a serious but stable condition, though he is conscious and talking, Rudd said.
The Russian government has denied any involvement in the Litvinenko killing or the attempted murder of Skripal, a former Russian agent who had served jail time in his homeland for spying for Britain before being freed in a spy swap.
Rudd said the “government will act without hesitation as the facts become clearer.”
In an interview with the BBC, Rudd refused to speculate about what nerve agent may have been used, but she confirmed that it was a “very rare” toxic substance.
The rarity of the material buttresses suggestions that a state actor was involved.
Chemical weapons expert Richard Guthrie of the research project CBW Events, which records the use of chemical and biological weapons, said the highly public attack appears to be “an expression of power” intended to send a message.
“There’s echoes of Litvinenko — you are doing it in a way that makes it obvious you’re doing it,” he said.
Russia is “obviously a clear candidate,” but it is too soon to say who was behind the attack, Guthrie added.
“It’s also possible there could be some troublemaker out there who wants to make it look like it was Russia,” he said.
Nerve agents are chemicals that disrupt the messages sent by the nerves to the body’s organs. They can be administered in gas or liquid form, causing symptoms including vomiting, breathlessness, paralysis and often death. The banned VX nerve agent was used to kill the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader last year in Malaysia.
Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said there was a low risk to the public, but experts said nerve agents are highly dangerous and need to be processed with specialized care.
“Nerve agents are not materials that can be made at home,” said Andrea Sella, a professor of inorganic chemistry at University College, London. “Their level of toxicity is such that they are only to be manufactured in specialized facilities.”
Authorities will be looking to find impurities and residues that might provide clues as to the precise chemical process used to manufacture the material, Sella said.
“There is no question that the authorities will be looking for the container used to deliver the material, as the chemical contents would be a goldmine,” Sella said. “With this information it might well be possible to trace the origin of the substance.”
Police and forensics officers are focusing on three sites in Salisbury, a medieval city known for its towering cathedral, located 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of London. Rudd said the sites are Skripal’s home, a pub and a restaurant.
Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, was convicted in 2006 of spying for Britain and imprisoned. He was freed in 2010 as part of a widely publicized spy swap in which the US agreed to hand over 10 members of a Russian sleeper cell found operating in America in return for four Russians convicted of spying for the West.
Those who knew him in Salisbury were shocked, describing him as friendly and outgoing — hardly a man hiding out.
The owner of a local convenience shop frequented by Skripal described him as one of her favorite customers. Ebru Ozturk said she made sure to stock the food he liked, particularly smoked bacon and Polish salami.
Ozturk, 41, painted an image of an educated man enjoying his retirement — fond of playing the lottery and chatting with the locals.
“Usually he plays lottery and scratch cards,” she said. “Plus a few weeks he was lucky as well and laughed about it.”


After the hurricane comes the deluge on South Carolina coast

Updated 25 September 2018
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After the hurricane comes the deluge on South Carolina coast

  • Hurricane Florence is expected to cause record flooding downriver in Georgetown County as its final act
  • In Washington, lawmakers considered almost $1.7 billion in new money for disaster relief and recovery

GEORGETOWN: Eleven days ago, Lee Gantt was at a Hurricane Florence party in her neighborhood in Georgetown, where the story goes that some houses haven’t flooded from the Sampit River since they were built before the American Revolution.
She will spend Tuesday with sandbags, watching the nearby river rise from Florence’s heavy rains and seeing if the luck finally runs out on her home built on Front Street in 1737.
“We thought this might be coming. We just left everything up above the floor just like from the hurricane. I’m nervous. Can’t you see me shaking?” she said, stretching her arms out.
The Sampit is one of five rivers that reach the Atlantic Ocean in and near Georgetown on the South Carolina coast. And Hurricane Florence — which started with record rainfall in North Carolina — is expected to cause record flooding downriver in Georgetown County as its final act. So much water is coming that it is backing up other rivers that aren’t even flooding.
The county has recommended almost 8,000 people leave their homes — more than 10 percent of the population. Officials expect floodwaters to top several bridges, nearly cutting Georgetown County in two and leaving only one highway out during the expected crest early Thursday.
The deluge has made its way so slowly down the Lumber, Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers that the state last week released detailed maps on where it expects flooding. Upstream in Horry County, the floodwaters have invaded close to 1,000 homes near Conway as the Waccamaw River was slowly making its way to a crest a full 4 feet (1.2 meters) over its record level set just two years ago after Hurricane Matthew.
But in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper said it was time to start concentrating on recovery. “Florence is gone but the storm’s devastation is still with us,” Cooper said at a news conference.
About 400 roads across North Carolina remained closed due to the storm that’s claimed at least 46 lives since slamming into the coast Sept. 14. Crews have reopened the major highways closed in the storm. Interstate 95 was reopened to all traffic Sunday night for the first time since the floods, and Cooper said Monday that a previously closed portion of Interstate 40 had reopened sooner than expected.
Power outages and the number of people in shelters also were declining. Around 5,000 people were without power, down from a peak of about 800,000, and about 2,200 people were in shelters, compared with a high of around 20,000, the governor said.
In Washington, lawmakers considered almost $1.7 billion in new money for disaster relief and recovery. And the economic research firm Moody’s Analytics estimated that Florence has caused around $44 billion in damage and lost output, one of the 10 costliest US hurricanes. The worst disaster, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, cost $192.2 billion in today’s dollars. Last year’s Hurricane Harvey cost $133.5 billion.
Down in Georgetown County, it is a disaster nearly two weeks in the making. Georgetown County spent days under hurricane warnings before Hurricane Florence made landfall about 110 miles (175 kilometers) up the coast near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.
The worst of the storm stayed well north, causing only minor flooding in Georgetown and some downed limbs.
“We had a hurricane party,” Gantt said. “Now I don’t know what to do.”
Several blocks up Front Street, the main business district was busy, but with people leaving. All along the sidewalk were piles of artwork, antiques, and boxes as owners emptied out their inventory to take to higher ground.
Tomlinson department store sent an empty truck normally used to stock stores and employees rushed to fill it with everything. The store has never flooded, but predictions call for up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water by Thursday. “The anticipation has been nerve-wracking. Though, I’m glad we had the time to do this,” said district manager Kevin Plexico.
Georgetown was positioning ambulances and firetrucks in the busy, tourist section along the beaches in case the floods cut off the US Highway 17 bridges as expected. National Guard troops were prepared to float more equipment across the river if needed. Exhausted emergency officials said they have lived nothing but Florence for more than two weeks.
“The work has been done,” Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber said. “We just need to pray.”