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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Ukraine minister says Sergei Skripal suspect helped ex-leader flee in 2014

The country's interior minister said one of the men helped president Yanukovich leave Ukraine

Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov said they were merely tourists in the historic city. Metropolitan Police
Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov said they were merely tourists in the historic city. Metropolitan Police

The Russian agent suspected of poisoning double agent Sergei Skripal took charge of the operation to spirit the former Ukrainian president into exile in Russia, according to the Ukrainian government.

Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga was given the Hero of Russia award for his role in protecting the former president as unrest broke out in Ukraine over for demands stronger integration with the European Union, Ukraine's interior minister said.

“One of the participants in the attack in the Salisbury, an officer of the GRU of the Russian Federation, had been recognised in Ukraine as a person who had been involved in transporting ex-president [Viktor] Yanukovich from Ukraine,” Arsen Avakov said in a statement.

Col Chepiga is one of two Russian foreign intelligence agents who flew into Britain in March on a mission to assassinate Mr Skripal, who was living quietly in Salisbury, southern England, with the nerve agent Novichok.

Mr Skripal was convicted in Russia of spying for the British and was later swapped for Russian intelligence officers and given asylum in the UK. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the former spy a traitor and a "scumbag" on Wednesday, while responding to questions about sanctions on Russia triggered by the attack. It was the first time the Russian President has condemned Mr Skripal.

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He and his daughter Yulia survived the attack, but a local woman who was unconnected with the Skripals later died after picking up a contaminated bottle.

The events led to a diplomatic row between Russia and Britain. On September 5, British Prime Minister Theresa May informed the UK parliament about the conclusions that investigators looking into the Salisbury incident had come to, saying that the assassination attempt was approved at "a senior level of the Russian state."

The Kremlin said it has no record of Col Chepiga receiving the award, even though his name is on a wall of honour at his former military academy in Russia. He served with a special forces unit under the command of the GRU – Russia's military intelligence service.

The 39-year-old earned more than 20 military awards for his service.

He is believed to have worked in Moscow since 2009, where he was given the fake identity of Ruslan Boshirov. He has been working undercover for the past nine years.

He was awarded the title of Hero of the Russian Federation in December 2014 during a secret ceremony that is typically held by the Russian president. The honorific title is only given to a handful of people each year.

The two suspects were at first identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Russian and European news outlets found Col Chepiga and Boshirov to be the same person.

British officials have not disputed the identification. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, insisted that the suspect is a civilian and said that "many people look alike."

Both men returned to Moscow on the same day of the attempted murder, before European arrest warrants and Interpol red notices had been issued for the pair. Russia does not extradite its own nationals.