The real identity of one of the men wanted by Britain for the Salisbury nerve agent attack is actually a decorated Russian army officer named Anatoliy Chepiga, according to investigators.
One of two men suspected of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal was identified by British police as "Ruslan Boshirov" but investigative site Bellingcat and its partner The Insider uncovered information they say reveals he is Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga, a special forces veteran.
British defence minister Gavin Williamson appeared to confirm the media reports on Twitter, saying the "true identity" of one of the suspects had been revealed. However, his tweet was subsequently deleted.
Prime Minister Theresa May did not refer directly to the new claim, but repeated her accusation that Russian military agents were behind the Salisbury poisonings.
Euronews has not been able to confirm the claims made by Bellingcat. According to the BBC and the FT, British officials are not disputing their accuracy.
Who is Colonel Chepiga?
The Bellingcat report said Col Anatoliy Chepiga was a "highly decorated GRU officer bestowed with Russia’s highest state award, Hero of the Russian Federation."
It also said as well as being observed near the Ukrainian border in late 2014, he was a veteran of the war in Chechnya, with his unit (74854, formerly 20662) playing "a key role" in the conflict.
Photos published by Bellingcat and The Insider show a strong resemblance to images released by British police of one of the Salisbury suspects.
The asserted identification of a top-ranking, decorated GRU officer “eliminates any remaining doubt that the two suspects in the Novichok poisonings were in face Russian officers operating on a clandestine government mission,” Bellingcat said.
The investigative site adds that is is highly likely that Vladimir Putin would have been familiar with Chepiga’s identity, as the Russian president would have handed out the state award to the colonel personally and only a few officers receive it each year.
Bellingcat gives details of how it investigated military, internet and passport records “to conclude with certainty” that the suspect Boshirov and Colonel Chepiga are one and the same person. The site claims Chepiga’s absence from official photos, despite his award, suggests that he may be a secret service officer – and describes as “demonstrated falsehoods” previous assertions by the person identified as Boshirov, and by President Putin, that the suspect is a civilian.
Finally, Bellingcat quotes a former senior Russian military officer as claiming that the alleged involvement of a high-ranking officer in the Salisbury operation implies that “the job was ordered at the highest level”.
British and Russian reaction
In New York, Theresa May accused Russia of seeking only “to obfuscate through desperate fabrication” – speaking in the presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a meeting of the UN Security Council.
Later the British Prime Minister said Russia had “flagrantly” breached international norms – “from the seizing of sovereign territory to the reckless use of chemical weapons on the streets of Britain by agents of the Russian GRU”.
Lavrov repeated Moscow’s accusations that Britain was hiding information, saying “the United Kingdom stubbornly shies away from the joint investigation that we repeatedly proposed”.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed the new claims, writing on Facebook that the aim of the “information campaign” was to “divert attention from the main question: ‘What happened in Salisbury?’”.
Earlier this month, British prosecutors charged two Russians — Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov — with attempted murder for the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in the southern English city in March but said they believed the suspects had been using aliases to enter Britain. Russia denies involvement.
The pair have also been linked to the killing of Dawn Sturgess – who was inadvertently poisoned after coming into the contents of a discarded bottle containing Novichok.
European arrest warrants and Interpol red notices have been issued for the suspects. However, prosecutors have not applied for extradition. Russia does not allow its own nationals to be extradited – and given the diplomatic row and political gulf between the two countries would be highly unlikely to accede to British demands.