MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Czech Republic has identified the same alleged Russian military intelligence officers wanted by Britain for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal as suspects in a deadly 2014 blast at an ammunition depot.
The men, known under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, are reportedly part of the elite Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.
The unit, according to a 2019 report by The New York Times, is focused on subversion, sabotage and assassination outside Russia. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after its publication that the article amounted to “pulp fiction”.
Britain charged the men in absentia with attempted murder in September 2018 after the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018. The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died. The Kremlin denied involvement in the incident.
In the wake of the Skripal attack, investigative website Bellingcat said Boshirov’s real name was Anatoliy Chepiga. It said the 42-year-old was a decorated military intelligence colonel from far eastern Russia who had taken part in wars in Chechnya and Ukraine.
Asked about the Bellingcat report at the time, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Many people look alike, but I cannot tell you who this citizen who was pointed out in this investigation is”.
After President Vladimir Putin called on the suspects in the Skripal poisoning to come forward and tell their story, they gave an interview to the state-run RT channel, under their aliases.
Boshirov said he was merely a civilian who had travelled to Salisbury in March 2018 not to poison Skripal but to do some sightseeing.
“There’s the famous Salisbury Cathedral. It’s famous not only in Europe, but in the whole world. It’s famous for its 123 metre-spire. It’s famous for its clock, one of the first ever created in the world that’s still working,” Boshirov said, appearing to recite information available on the cathedral’s Wikipedia page.
Boshirov said he and Petrov, the other suspect identified by Britain in the Skripal poisoning, had strolled around Salisbury to enjoy the beauty of its Gothic buildings.
Bellingcat identified Petrov as Alexander Mishkin, saying he was born in July 1979 in northern Russia and trained as a military doctor. He was later recruited by the GRU, according to the investigative website.
In the 2018 interview with RT, Petrov said their first attempt to visit Salisbury had been cut short because “the city was covered in slush” but that the pair returned on another day.
A man and a woman were poisoned in the nearby town of Amesbury in June 2018 after police believe they handled a Nina Ricci perfume bottle that contained Novichok. The woman, Dawn Sturgess, died.
Petrov said the men had not travelled to Britain with the perfume bottle.
“Why would men need a women’s perfume?” he said.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Frances Kerry)