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Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were specifically targeted with a nerve agent, Britain’s top counterterrorism officer said on Wednesday.

At a press conference, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley of the Metropolitan Police said the incident was being treated as “attempted murder by a nerve agent”.

Skripal, 66, and his daughter, 33, have been critically ill in hospital since Sunday afternoon, when they were found collapsed on a bench near the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury.

Rowley also revealed that a police officer who was among the first on the scene to help the Skripals on Sunday is now also seriously ill in hospital. Fellow officers from Wiltshire police are providing support to his family and colleagues.

Appearing alongside Rowley at the press conference, the UK’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, said that the risk to the public was low, adding that all sites that had been visited by the Skripals had been secured.

In a statement, the Met said the exact nerve agent had been identified but that information was not being released. “Scientific tests by government experts have identified the specific nerve agent used which will help identify the source but at this stage in a fast-paced ongoing investigation we will not comment further.”

Rowley did not answer further questions from reporters on what the nerve agent was or how it had been administered, saying he could not go into more details at this stage.

He said that officers were working to establish who was behind what is believed to have been a targeted attack on the Skripals, who he said were “very seriously ill” in hospital. Specialist detectives were working to account for their previous movements and who they had come into contact with, he added.

The attack is being treated as a major incident, and hundreds of counterterrorism officers have been deployed from across the country to work on the investigation.

Rowley also repeated a call-out to anyone who was in the area on Sunday afternoon who may have seen something that could help police.

He said: “Did you see anything out of the ordinary? It may be that at the time, nothing appeared out of place or untoward but with what you now know, you remember something that might be of significance. Your memory of that afternoon and your movements alone could help us with missing pieces of the investigation. The weather was poor that day so there were not as many people out and about. Every statement we can take is important.”

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