U.K. anti-terrorism police investigate after 'unknown substance' leaves 2 critically ill

British counterterrorism police were investigating Wednesday after two people were left in critical condition, exposed to an unknown substance a few kilometres from where a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent.

The Wiltshire Police force declared a "major incident" after a man and a woman in their 40s were hospitalized after being found unconscious at a residential building in Amesbury, 13 kilometres from Salisbury, where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned on March 4.

Both victims are British nationals, said Wiltshire Police deputy chief Constable Paul Mills. He did not release their names, but friends named the couple as Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45.

He said police initially believed the couple fell ill after potentially using contaminated illegal drugs.

"However, further testing is now ongoing to establish the substance which led to these patients becoming ill. At this stage, it is not yet clear if a crime has been committed," Mills said.

London's Metropolitan Police force said "given the recent events in Salisbury," counterterrorism officers were working with local police on the investigation.

We are keeping an open mind as to the circumstances surrounding this incident.– Wiltshire Police

Police cordoned off the building and other places the two people visited before falling ill, but health officials said there was not believed to be a wider risk to the public.

The man and woman were hospitalized Saturday at Salisbury District Hospital, where the Skripals spent weeks in critical condition after being poisoned. Both are in critical condition.

A major incident is a designation allowing British authorities to mobilize more than one emergency agency.

The incident is being treated with the "utmost seriousness," a spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May said.

The British government's emergency response committee had met over the incident in Wiltshire, southwest England, and ministers were being regularly updated.

'Quiet, uneventful' area

Residents in the area, a quiet neighbourhood of newly built houses and apartments, said they had received little information from authorities.

"Amesbury's a lovely place — it's very quiet, uneventful," said Rosemary Northing, who lives a couple of hundred metres away from the cordoned-off building. "So for this to happen, and the media response and the uncertainty, it's unsettling."

Police officers stand outside the front door of a residential property in Amesbury. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

Neighbours said police cars and fire engines descended on the home late Saturday. Student Chloe Edwards said she saw people in "green suits" — like those worn by forensics officers — and her family was told to stay in their home for several hours.

"We wanted to know what happened and with the Russian attack happening not long ago, and we just assumed the worst," Edwards said.

Among the sites cordoned off was a Baptist church where the victims attended a community event on Saturday. Church secretary Roy Collins said about 200 people were at the neighbourhood event, but "nobody else has suffered any ill-effects."

Britain accuses Russia of poisoning the Skripals with a nerve agent known as Novichok, a group of chemical weapons developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Moscow denies the allegation. The poisoning sparked a Cold War-style diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West, including the expulsion of hundreds of diplomats from both sides.

Poisoning victims recovering

Counterterrorism teams from London's Metropolitan Police were called in to help local forces in Wiltshire at the time of the Skripal poisoning. On Wednesday, however, Scotland Yard referred media calls to Wiltshire police.

The statement from Wiltshire Police came only a month after police from 40 departments in England and Wales returned home after months of working on the poisoning of the Skripals. Wiltshire Police spent about 7.5 million pounds ($ 13 million) dealing with the aftermath of the Skripals' poisoning and believe that his front door was contaminated with the nerve agent.

Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, are now living in an undisclosed location after recovering from being poisoned. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

Sergei Skripal, 66, is a former Russian intelligence officer who was convicted of spying for Britain before coming to the U.K. as part of a 2010 prisoner swap. He had been living quietly in Salisbury, a cathedral city 145 kilometres southwest of London, when he was struck down along with his 33-year-old daughter Yulia.

After being found unconscious in the street, the two spent weeks in critical condition at the hospital. Doctors who treated them say they have made a remarkable recovery but they still don't know what the Skirpals' long-term prognosis is.

The Skripals have been taken to an undisclosed location for their protection.

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