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Putin says Russia has identified two novichok hitmen

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Mystery deepened today over the pair of ‘Russian assassins’ who flew to London to poison the Skripals with novichok.

Vladimir Putin claimed they were civilians not GRU military spies and had done nothing criminal – as he urged them to come clean and tell their story.

But one – who appears to work for a drugs company in Tomsk, Siberia, making vaccine against smallpox – snubbed him by refusing to speak before next week.

‘No comment for the moment. Maybe later. Next week, I think,’ a man identified as Alexander Petrov was reported to have told State television channel Rossiya-24.

Last week the same man had told Russian TV: ‘I don’t know a thing about it. And I have nothing to do with the Skripal story.’

He claimed he was the victim of mistaken identity, and denied possessing a foreign passport.

‘This is a complete coincidence,’ he said. ‘Let alone London, I can’t even manage to get to the Altai Mountains (in southern Siberia).’

The other suspect, Ruslan Bochirov, also named by anti-terror police in London, has not so far spoken and showed no immediate indication of obeying Putin’s call.

And if Putin intended to imply that Petrov had been innocently in Britain, this was immediately denied by Viktoria Skripal, niece of poisoned ex-double agent Sergei Skripal.

‘According to my information, real Alexander Petrov was not in the UK at that time,’ she told Interfax news agency.

Viktoria went on to say about Petrov and Boshirov: ‘Through my sources I know that these are ordinary people. Petrov’s work is even not related to the government.’

Without naming her sources she said that Petrov and Bochirov ‘and their close ones are in complete bewilderment and shock over what’s happening.

‘I knew it from the first day that this whole story about involvement of Petrov and Boshirov is fake.’

This claim appeared to contradict Putin who said the Russian government had ‘found’ the pair identified by Britain.

‘We’ve found them, and hope they will come forward and tell us about themselves,’ said the Kremlin leader.

‘This would be best for everyone. There is nothing special here, nothing criminal, I assure you.’

Meanwhile newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) claimed pictures of the Petrov from Tomsk do not appear to match the man seen in London on CCTV footage.

A separate Alexander Petrov – a common Russian name – has grandparents who were in Stalin’s SMERSH ‘death to spies’ killing machine, but Russian state-run TV, at least, appears to think he is the wrong man.

This is despite his foreign passport – evidently used to travel to London – apparently matching his address in Moscow.

This Petrov once ran a lingerie plant in Ukraine – and left under a cloud of debt, according to his business partner today.

Also today, MK today claimed there are many ‘unexplainable moments in Ruslan Boshirov’s biography’.

It came as Downing Street accused Russia of lying after Vladimir Putin claimed that the two men identified as suspects by British authorities were ‘civilians, not criminals’.

They identified the pair as Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov and claimed they were members of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence network. 

The Russian premier said he knew the true identities of the men accused of trying to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia and denied they were spies.

The Kremlin also claimed that Petrov worked for a pharmaceutical company and was not involved with the military.

But Theresa May hit back at these claims and said Russia has repeatedly failed to answer questions over what the men were doing in the UK if they were not involved. 

Official documents suggest Boshirov was born on 12 April 1978 in Dushanbe, capital of ex-Soviet republic Tajikistan.

Now 40, he apparently lived in Blagoveshchensk, deep in Siberia, before moving to Moscow.

Intriguingly, MK newspaper said a passport issued in his name shows a picture similar to the CCTV pictures from Britain.

This passport – believed to be his domestic identity document not a foreign travel document – was issued in 2010, it was reported.

‘A passport with the name of Ruslan Boshirov actually exists. It was issued… in Moscow on 20 October 2010.

‘The man on the picture looks very much like the man who is suspected by the British of poisoning the Skripals.’

The paper did not published the picture – but it emerged tonight. Yet the trail for Boshirov goes cold.

Official databases suggest Boshirov lives in a flat with a non-existent address – or, according to another version, one occupied in a 25-storey Moscow block by a woman called Alina Isakova, owner of the apartment for 11 years.

‘The woman swears by God that a Ruslan Boshirov is not registered and has never been registered at her address,’ reported MK. ‘She lives with with her husband and teenage son in a one-room apartment 43.3 square metres in size.’

Isakova fumed: ‘I am tired explaining to everyone that I do not know this person. In the past two days we’ve been attacked by journalists.

‘They even managed to get through our concierge that a fly cannot pass. No one would have been able to register him without my knowledge.’

MK concluded: ‘There is no reason not to trust Isakova… This is why it is possible to say that at least the information about the residential registration of Ruslan Boshirov is incorrect.’

Boshirov’s parents are listed as Tatiana Sergeyevna Boshirova and Timur Mikhailovich Boshirov.

But MK insists it was told by the Russian migration service that ‘there are no such people’ on their databases. Their names are not on other Russian registers.

Two mobile phones issued to the man are ‘blocked’, reported the newspaper.

‘Two messengers are registered to one of them showing that this user was last seen online on March 11, precisely one week after poisoning of Skripals.’

Separately Viktoria Skripal denied claimed the story was like ‘a good detective story, or bad vaudeville…’

On Petrov and Boshirov, she said: ‘I don’t know who they are…they might be fake identities, and they might be real.

‘TV shows some strange shots from (Gatwick) airport which make me want to say that if you fake a story, fake it better. These two were seen in Salisbury.

‘Sergey has CCTV cameras at home. Why didn’t we see them by the house?

‘Reports suggested that it took Sergey and Yulia up to four hours to succumb to Novichok.

‘Earlier we were made to believe that the military-grade nerve agent kills almost instantly.

‘Then, a door handle was sprayed or smeared with Novichok. So why wasn’t the house demolished, why does it still there, contaminated.

‘There are two more houses as close as 20 metres to Sergey’s house, people continue to live there and don’t get poisoned – how come?

‘People who got close to Novichok, namely who lived next to the site and who stood in the police cordon, none of them got poisoned. I find it strange. Could this be a GRU punishment to a traitor?

‘Honestly, I find it somewhat ridiculous. Does the Russian GRU have nothing better to do? Don’t we have problems in Ukraine? Don’t we have heaps of other problems?

‘Sergey was one of four who was pardoned; the last on the list (of spies exchanged in the swap with Anna Chapman in 2010). Why weren’t the others poisoned? Why are our other double-agents not poisoned in the US? Why only Skripal, and only in the UK?’ 

Russia paraded nuclear-capable missiles able to reach London at a week-long war games event with China, with 300,000 Russian troops taking part in a move that has rattled the West.

Speaking at an economic forum in Vladivostok, Mr Putin said: ‘We have checked what kind of people they are. We know who they are, we have found them.

‘We hope they will turn up very soon and will tell everything themselves. It will be better for all of us. There is nothing criminal in it’. 

The president’s claims fly in the face of the Prime Minister Theresa May, who previously told MPs the attack was ‘almost certainly approved at the top level of the Russian state’. 

But Mrs May said today: ‘The police and CPS have identified these men as the prime suspects in the attack in Salisbury. These men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, who used a devastatingly toxic illegal chemical weapon on the streets of our country.

‘The Government has exposed the role of the GRU and its operatives in these methods. Its position is supported by our international allies.

‘We have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March. They have replied with obfuscation and lies. I have seen nothing to suggest that has changed.’ 

In an unusual move, Mr Putin called on Petrov and Boshirov to appear before the media to talk about ‘themselves’.

The denial comes amid claims the pair had a ‘back up’ team with four more suspects still thought to be at large.

In a bizarre twist the Russian state media has claimed that the Alexander Petrov suspected in the case previously ran a failed lingerie company near the Ukrainian city of Odessa. 

Russian news outlet RT contacted his former business partner in Odessa, Sergey Prudnikov, who ‘did not say anything good about his companion’.

He alleged Petrov left his business with a half million hryvnia debt – around £13,640.

Mr Prudnikov said: ‘In a word, he cheated half-Odessa. Many are looking for him but nobody found him yet.’

‘I don’t know what kind of businessman he is. Most likely, a fraudster.’

One theory – after Putin’s statement – is that Petrov may have had his identity stolen by the would-be assassin seen in Britain.

Mr Prudnikov added his former business partner was ‘secretive’ and he ‘did not know who he really was’.

He said: ‘He said he was from Moscow, but maybe not from Moscow, and maybe not Petrov, maybe not even Sasha (Alexander).

Last week it was claimed Petrov’s grandparents served in Stalin’s ‘death to spies’ SMERSH killing machine during the Second World War.

His links to the lingerie firm in Ukraine were found on a database stating he was co-founder of Lyubopil Sewing Factory which made underwear and T-shirts but is now facing bankruptcy.

He is also registered to an address in Marshala Tukhachevskogo street in Moscow. 

Another Russian scientist called Alexander Petrov who works at a secretive Siberian plant that produces smallpox vaccine has already denied he is a GRU spy who was sent to Britain to assassinate Sergei Skripal.

This Petrov, 39, employed at mysterious Siberian ‘scientific’ company Virion, said: ‘I don’t know a thing about it.

‘And I have nothing to do with the Skripal story.’

The two alleged assassins are said to have visited the UK several times, posing as wealthy Russians, so that their trip in March would not attract suspicion.

Work has started to decontaminate the home of poisoning victim Mr Skripal, six months after the attack.

A cordon is in place so that police investigations or clean-up work can be carried out safely and will remain in place until the decontamination has been completed.

Counter-terrorism officers believe the house is where Mr Skripal, a former Russian agent, and his daughter Yulia were contaminated with nerve agent on March 4, after a high concentration of the chemical weapon was found on the front door.

Former GRU officer Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia were left critically ill after being exposed to the military grade nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury in March.

Experts believe the Novichok was kept in a fake Nina Ricci perfume bottle and claim it took up to three months to produce and was probably sanctioned at the highest levels of the Russian state.

Detectives say it is likely the two suspects, thought to be aged around 40, travelled under aliases and that Petrov and Boshirov are not their real names.

Prosecutors deem it futile to apply to Russia for the extradition of the two men, but a European Arrest Warrant has been obtained and the authorities are also seeking the assistance of Interpol.

Officers have formally linked the attack on the Skripals to events in nearby Amesbury when Dawn Sturgess, 44, and her partner Charlie Rowley, 45, were exposed to the same nerve agent. Ms Sturgess later died in hospital.

Moscow has continued to deny it was involved in the attack.

A critic of Putin’s regime has claimed the suspects are ‘already dead’ and that a search for them is futile.

Andrei Piontkovsky believes that Petrov and Boshirov could have been executed to hide traces of the alleged crime.

He compared the case to that of Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, the men accused by Britain of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko with polonium in 2006.

Lugovoy and Kovtun went public to deny the claims soon after being accused, meaning the Russian authorities then protected them, said Piontkovsky. 

‘Lugovoy and Kovtun rescued themselves by running to Ecko (radio station) and going public,’ the respected mathematician and political analyst said.

‘One (Lugovoy) even had to be made an MP. If ‘Petrov’ and ‘Bashirov’ don’t appear in the coming days, it means they are already dead.’

Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons last week that CCTV evidence ‘clearly’ places the two Russians in the vicinity of the Skripals’ house shortly before the attack on them.

She said: ‘This hard evidence has enabled the independent Crown Prosecution Service to conclude they have a sufficient basis on which to bring charges’.

Mrs May said around 250 detectives had trawled through 11,000 hours of CCTV footage to identify the attackers and had taken more than 1,400 statements.

‘Working around the clock, they have carried out painstaking and methodical work to ascertain exactly which individuals were responsible and the methods they used to carry out the attack,’ she told MPs. 

May told MPs that ‘this was not a rogue operation’ and would ‘almost certainly’ have been approved at a ‘senior level of the Russian state’.

CCTV images showed Petrov and Boshirov grinning as they walked around the Wiltshire city on the day former double agent and his daughter were poisoned with the military grade nerve agent.

The pair were also pictured leaving Britain at Heathrow Airport shortly after the attack and have never returned. 

Making the announcement on the suspects, Scotland Yard’s counter terror Commissioner Neil Basu said: ‘Today marks the most significant moment so far in what has been one of the most complex and intensive investigations we have undertaken in Counter Terrorism policing; the charging of two suspects – both Russian nationals – in relation to the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal.’

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s denial his country had anything to do with the Novichok poisoning comes a day after he paraded nuclear-capable missiles that are able to reach London in rehearsals for a ‘large conflict’ alongside Chinese soldiers. 

Beijing issued a veiled threat to US President Donald Trump as it launched its largest every military drills, with 300,000 Russian troops taking part along with Chinese soldiers in a massive show of force that has rattled the West.

The week-long war games dubbed ‘Vostok-2018’ (East-2018), ‘have kicked off’ in far eastern Russia and on the Pacific Ocean, the Russian defence ministry said in a statement. 

It broadcast images on Tuesday of military trucks being transported on trains, columns of tanks, armoured vehicles and warships on the move, ships getting into position and combat helicopters and fighter aircraft taking off.

The ministry said this activity was part of the first stage of the exercise, which runs until September 17, and it involved deploying additional forces to Russia’s far east and a naval build-up involving its Northern and Pacific fleets.

The main aim was to check the military’s readiness to move troops large distances, to test how closely infantry and naval forces cooperated, and to perfect command and control procedures. Later stages will involve rehearsals of both defensive and offensive scenarios. 

The defence ministry said the largest military drills since the end of the Cold War will involve about 36,000 tanks and 300,000 troops at sea and on the ground. China is sending 3,200 troops to take part in the exercises later this week. 

They coincide with talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of an economic forum in Vladivostok in Russia’s far east on Tuesday, at which he claimed his authorities ‘knew who the Novichok suspects were’.

The military exercises come at a time of escalating tensions between Moscow and the West over accusations of Russian interference in western affairs and ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

The Russian army has compared the show of force to the USSR’s 1981 war games that saw between 100,000 and 150,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers take part in ‘Zapad-81’ (West-81) – the largest military exercises of the Soviet era.

Some 30 aircraft from the Chinese air force will also take part in the five day drills.

The Chinese claimed the vast operation was not ‘directed against any third party’ and would focus purely on ‘defences, firepower strikes and counterattack.’

The latest in a series of massive drills ordered by Putin come at a time of escalating tensions between Moscow and the West over accusations of Russian interference in western affairs and ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

Vostok-2018 also features more than twice the number of troops in the entire British armed forces, which is just below 150,000.

The Kremlin has also accused NATO of expanding westwards and threatening Russian national security. 

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