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Super recogniser squad tracks Skripal novichok attackers

8:41 am, 28th August 2018

The officers, who have a rare skill in memorising faces, are thought to have played a vital role in identifying two Russian suspects the UK authorities want to extradite from Russia.

The detectives were sent to the city at the start of the investigation into the novichok nerve agent attack on Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

They are part of a team trawling through 5,000 hours of CCTV footage, trying to match images of suspects filmed in Salisbury with images of airline passengers on cameras at Heathrow and other airports before and after the poisoning in March.

Former detective chief inspector Mick Neville, who set up the squad, said: “The two super recognisers were deployed immediately because of their special skills and they are still on the case. I’ve no doubt they’ve played a key role.

“They have an innate skill, you can’t buy it and you can’t teach it. They have a highly unusual ability in remembering faces, whether it’s from a picture, a bit of film or someone they’ve met.

“They don’t concentrate on the obvious, the greying hair or the moustache or the glasses, they look at the eyes, the mouth, the ears, the things that don’t change. They can recognise a face from the tiniest glimpse of part of it.”

Mr Neville said it was likely the super recognisers have also been shown photographs of known Russian agents suspected of operating in the UK and searched CCTV for their presence in Salisbury.

He said: “The intelligence agencies will have images of foreign agents who come here and once they are scanned by the super recognisers they will be imprinted in their memory.”

The squad was set up in the wake of the 2011 London riots when it became clear that certain officers viewing CCTV were far better than their colleagues at spotting the same suspects in different locations.

The new squad helped identify the killer of schoolgirl Alice Gross in West London in 2014 and was called in by German police a year later to help in the hunt for New Year’s Eve sex attackers in Cologne.

Police believe Mr Skripal and his daughter, who both recovered from the murder attempt, were poisoned by novichok smeared on the front door handle of his Salisbury home before the pair collapsed the next day in the city centre.

It’s possible the nerve agent was put there when he left for five hours to collect Yulia from Heathrow airport. There are no obvious CCTV cameras in his street which is on the outskirts of the city.

Mr Neville said: “Sergei was living openly with his real name registered in the voters’ database and seemingly unconcerned at the possibility of being assassinated.

“But he may have had security because he was worried about being burgled and so might his neighbours, so it’s possible the would-be killers were caught on a camera in the act. Vehicles moving around with dashboard cameras might also have recorded an image.

“It’s possible the attackers followed the Skripals into the city centre the next day to make sure that the poison finally worked and there are lots of cameras around the bench where the victims were found.

“It’s a laborious part of the operation, but there is plenty of material for the super recognisers to work on.”