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Salisbury poisoning suspects: What we know so far

Alexander Petrov (left) and Ruslan Boshirov, who is claimed to be Russian intelligence officer Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga (PA/MPS) Photo: PA Wire/PA Images

The “real” identity of one of the men suspected of carrying out the deadly Salisbury nerve agent attack has been disclosed by an online investigative group. Here is what we know so far about the prime suspects.

‘Sent to the UK to kill’

On September 5, the Prime Minister told MPs that two Russian nationals were suspected of travelling to the UK to murder former spy Sergei Skripal with the nerve agent Novichok.

They used the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, which police believed to be aliases.

CCTV images tracked their movements from arriving in the UK on March 2 until their return to Russia late on March 4, the day of the attack.

Evidence gathered by intelligence agencies led the Government to conclude the men were officers from the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU.

The men are seen at Salisbury train station on March 3 Credit: PA/MPS

Putin’s denial

A week later, Russian president Vladimir Putin publicly denied the men identified by the UK were responsible.

He said there was “nothing criminal” about the pair and said they were civilians. Mr Putin made a surprise appeal for Petrov and Boshirov to appear in public to dispel doubt about their true identity.

The interview

On September 13, the men appeared on Russian state-funded news channel RT.

In a bizarre interview Boshirov said they travelled to the “wonderful” Wiltshire city to see Stonehenge and Old Sarum after recommendations from friends.

He told the interviewer he wanted to see the world-renowned Salisbury Cathedral, which is “famous for its 123m spire” and historic clock.

Boshirov acknowledged they may have been near Mr Skripal’s house but said they did not know where it was. He said his life had been turned “upside down” after he was named as a suspect.

Bellingcat revelation

On Wednesday, online investigative group Bellingcat reported that Boshirov’s true identity is Anatoliy Chepiga, a 39-year-old married father-of-one.

He is also a highly-decorated colonel in the GRU, the group says.

Born in Amur Oblast in far-east Russia, he joined an elite military academy at 18.

The group said he graduated with honours and was assigned to a unit under GRU command.

The unit played a key role in the second Chechen War and he was deployed to the country three times, Bellingcat said. According to the group he was given his pseudonym at some point between 2003 and 2010.

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The president’s man?

The group said Col Chepiga was given the Kremlin’s highest state award, Hero of the Russian Federation, in secret in 2014.

The awards are usually handed out by Mr Putin himself, meaning it is “highly likely” the president would have been familiar with Col Chepiga’s identity.

What he was given the award for remains a mystery. In 2014 there were no military activities in Chechnya and Russia had not engaged in Syria.

The only region where Russia is alleged to have been involved was Eastern Ukraine, where any mission would have been classified.

Anatoliy Chepiga is said to have joined the Russian military at 18 Credit: Bellingcat/PA

What has Russia said?

A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed Bellingcat’s claims, and said they were part of an “information campaign” to distract from the investigation into what really happened in Salisbury.

What has the UK Government said?

The Home Office said it could neither confirm nor deny the reporting about the suspect’s real identity. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson briefly appeared to confirm the story, posting and then deleting a tweet that said the “true identity of one of the Salisbury suspects has been revealed to be a Russian Colonel”.

And how about Alexander Petrov?

Bellingcat’s disclosures focus on Col Chepiga, although they say Alexander Petrov is a “fake cover persona” for an as yet unidentified Russian individual.

The group says he is not a civilian, but linked to one of Russia’s security services.

Bellingcat says it has assessed data from the Russian central passport database.

The issue numbers on passports used by the men to travel to Britain differed by only three digits, making it “implausible” that they were issued through regular channels, the group said.