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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Russian hit squad duo decorated by Putin

Assassination team were given Russia’s highest honour for covert activities in Ukraine, say investigators

Investigative website Bellingcat identified a suspect for the Salisbury nerve agent attack as Dr Alexander Mishkin, a military intelligence officer. AP
Investigative website Bellingcat identified a suspect for the Salisbury nerve agent attack as Dr Alexander Mishkin, a military intelligence officer. AP

Both members of the Russian military hit squad who targeted a former double agent in the UK were decorated military veterans awarded the country’s top honour by President Vladimir Putin, according to the investigative website that unmasked their identities.

The second suspect has been named by investigators Bellingcat as Alexander Mishkin, 39, a military doctor in the GRU intelligence agency. He was identified through scrutiny of passport and driving records, officials from the organisation said.

Dr Mishkin – who had previously been identified as Alexander Petrov by British police – was identified by seven people in his isolated home village of Loyga, in northern Russia, as a trained military doctor.

The website released passport photographs that resembled the suspect who last month on the Russian news channel RT denied involvement in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English city of Salisbury.

The pair, who were caught on security cameras, had made two visits to the city, for what police believe was a reconnaissance mission followed by the murder bid. The pair claim they were merely tourists and had returned back to London after the first trip because of bad weather.

Bellingcat researchers contrasted the conditions in Salisbury with Loyga, which is cut off from the rest of Russia for most of the year because of the frozen conditions.

At a news conference in parliament on Tuesday, Bellingcat investigator Cristo Grozev said that the grandmother of Dr Mishkin had shown other villagers a picture of him receiving the Hero of the Russian Federation award from Mr Putin. The group’s Russian partners had not been able to obtain the picture.

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“They confirmed that their homeboy Alexander Mishkin was the person who moved on to military school and then became a famous military doctor,” said Mr Grozev. “His grandmother has a photograph… that has been seen by everybody in the village, of President Putin shaking Mishkin's hand and giving him the award."

The website last month identified the first suspect for the attack as another highly-decorated officer, Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, adding further evidence to UK claims that the pair were working on a clandestine government mission.

British prosecutors have charged the pair with conspiracy to murder Mr Skripal, attempted murder and other charges related to the illegal use of nerve agent. The two men remain in Russia, safe from attempts to extradite them.

Mr Putin has previously claimed that the pair were both civilians who were not linked with Russian intelligence agencies. But villagers in Dr Mishkin's home village told researchers that he received his award for work “either in Crimea or in relation to Yanukovych”, the former Kremlin backed president who was whisked out of the country by Russian forces following his overthrow in 2014.

Dr Mishkin was identified after Bellingcat researchers used a series of leaked databases to identify a person with the same first name and date of birth but different surname. Further records revealed that he once lived in St Petersburg, opposite the military medical academy, and gave the GRU headquarters as an address for car insurance documents.

Contemporaries from St Petersburg military academy identified the man as one of the pair who travelled to Salisbury, southern England in March, according to Bellingcat.

Mr Skripal and his daughter survived the attack but Dawn Sturgess, who lived nearby, died after handling the discarded perfume bottle that was used to bring the deadly Russian military grade nerve agent novichok into the country.

The steady flow of revelations about the operation has embarrassed Russia, which has continuously denied involvement in any assassination bid on UK soil.

But its denials were undermined by a coordinated release of information last week by countries including the US, UK and the Netherlands, which blamed Russia for a series of cyber plots including against the chemical weapons watchdog, football’s world governing body and the world doping agency.

Bob Seely, a British lawmaker, described the GRU as the Kremlin’s “one-stop shop for global subversion”.

The Kremlin declined to comment about Bellingcat’s claims.