One of them appeared to promise an interview to a Russian state news outlet next week, but doubts remain whether he is the same man sought by the UK police.
Two Russians known as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov have been charged with attempting to murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March by spraying Novichok nerve agent on the handle of their door. The metropolitan police have said these names are probably aliases.
Theresa May’s spokesman on Wednesday reiterated that “these men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service the GRU who used a devastatingly toxic chemical weapon in Salisbury.”
Asked about the case on Wednesday at the eastern economic forum in Vladivostok, Mr Putin tried to shift the blame away from the Russian state, insisting that the two men were “civilians”.
“We know who they are, we found them,” he said at a panel with the leaders of China and Japan. “I hope they will appear on their own to talk about themselves, that will be better for everyone. There’s nothing especially criminal there, I assure you.”
His comments suggested that Russia will soon put forward an Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov to deny or muddy the waters around the British accusations.
Following Mr Putin’s statement, state media Rossiya 24 spoke with an employee of Virion, a branch of the state pharmaceutical company Microgen in the Siberian city of Tomsk, named Alexander Petrov.
“I have no comment for now. Maybe later. Next week I think,” Petrov said.
But Alexander Petrov is an extremely common name in Russia. Photographs on his social media page, which were retrieved by The Telegraph last week before they were deleted, appeared to show a different man than the one seen in the photograph and Salisbury CCTV footage of Alexander Petrov released by UK police.
A relative of the Petrov in Tomsk told The Telegraph his middle name was Sergeyevich, which did not match the middle name of the Petrov who went to Salisbury, according to a diplomatic source.
The Telegraph has been trying to get in touch with both Petrov and Virion since the metropolitan police first announced the attackers’ names last week. Neither has responded to requests for comment.
Last week, the Petrov in Tomsk told Russian state media he had “nothing to do with the story with Skripal”.
“It’s a complete coincidence. I can’t go to London, I can’t even go to the Altai” region, he said, apparently referring to travel restrictions that some state employees are subject to.
According to passport details reported by the independent Russian news site Fontanka, the Petrov who flew to London in March was born on July 13, 1979.
There are at least five Alexander Petrovs with this birth date in Russia.
One of them held an ID from the defence ministry, of which the GRU was a part, and was the grandson of an officer in Joseph Stalin’s feared counter-intelligence agency SMERSH.
But his patronymic middle name also did not match that of the Salisbury suspect.
The background of the other attacker, Ruslan Boshirov, remains just as murky.
A man with that name was born in the Soviet republic of Tajikistan on April 12, 1978, according to an electronic real estate document seen by The Telegraph.
No one answered the door when a reporter knocked at the flat that Boshirov listed as his home address, and neighbours said they had not seen or heard of Boshirov.
The flat was also listed as the home address of a woman named Alina Isaakova. When The Telegraph reached her by phone, she denied knowing of any Boshirov and said he had never lived there.
“This person probably doesn’t exist,” she said. “It’s a fake.”
Ruslan Boshirov received a passport in 2010 from the federal migration service’s central branch in Moscow, an office that often issues passports to state officials and undercover agents, according to Sergei Kanev of the Dossier Centre, an investigative journalism project funded by Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The only people he had previously seen with passports from this office, Mr Kanev said, was an agent of the FSB security service and two secretive women believed to be Mr Putin’s daughters.
Video: Prime Minister addresses Commons over Salisbury
In a statement that deepened the diplomatic crisis between the two countries, Mrs May told MPs last week that intelligence provided by UK agencies indicates the two Russian suspects are officers of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.
“This was not a rogue operation,” Mrs May said. “It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.”
The Crown Prosecution Service now faces a battle to bring the case as Russia does not allow the extradition of its own nationals.
A European arrest warrant for the two men – who police think were travelling under aliases and are now back in Russia – has been obtained.
Scotland Yard said the military-grade nerve agent was brought into the UK in a fake bottle of Ninna Ricci Premier Jour perfume, which had been designed as a specially-made poison applicator.
It is believed that it was later found by Charlie Rowley before he and his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, became indirect casualties of the poisoning. Ms Sturgess died just over a week later.
Neil Basu, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said it is likely the suspects were travelling under aliases and that Petrov and Boshirov are not their real names.
He said the pair, who are believed to be aged around 40, had been to the UK before on the same passports and had “travelled extensively on them in the past”.
Detectives believe the front door of Mr Skripal’s Salisbury home was contaminated with the military-grade substance on Sunday, March 4. Mr Basu said CCTV shows the two suspects in the vicinity of the property on that date.
Hours later, the men left the UK on a flight from Heathrow to Moscow – two days after they had arrived at Gatwick.
Releasing a series of CCTV images of the men in Britain, Mr Basu asked witnesses to come forward to establish their real identities.
Russian media reports suggest Boshirov is a 40-year-old Moscow State University graduate who was living in the capital.
Boshirov’s latest listed address is said to be in Moscow, but less is known about Petrov, other than he is 39.
Caught on camera: The 48-hour ‘mission to kill’
When passengers left the Aeroflot SU2588 flight from Moscow to London Gatwick on the afternoon of March 2 2018, little did they know they were in the company of two men police believe were sent to the UK to kill.
Here is a timeline of the suspects’ movements, released by Scotland Yard, during their brief trip to the UK:
Friday, March 2
1500: Suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov arrive at Gatwick Airport, having flown from Moscow on Aeroflot flight SU2588.
1740: The pair arrive at London Victoria station by train from Gatwick.
1800: They then travel on public transport to Waterloo station, and then to the City Stay Hotel in Bow Road, east London, where they stay for two nights.
Saturday, March 3
1145: The pair arrive at Waterloo station, having left the hotel, bound for Salisbury. It is believed the two are on a reconnaissance mission.
1425: They arrive in Salisbury by train.
1611: Having spent a short time in the city, Petrov and Boshirov leave Salisbury to begin the return journey.
2005: The pair arrive back in Bow, east London, where they stay at the City Stay Hotel for a second night.
Sunday, March 4
0805: The day of the Novichok attack. Petrov and Boshirov use the Underground at Bow to travel to Waterloo, and then on by train to Salisbury.
1148: The pair are caught on CCTV leaving Salisbury railway station.
1158: They are then spotted in Wilton Road in Salisbury, a short distance from Christie Miller Road, Mr Skripal’s address. Police say this is moments before the attack.
1305: The suspects are caught on CCTV in Fisherton Street, heading back towards the railway station.
1350: Petrov and Boshirov begin their journey back to London.
1645: The pair arrive back in London at Waterloo station.
1830: They board the Underground heading to Heathrow Airport.
1928: CCTV catches the pair going through passport control.
2230: They depart London for Moscow on the Aeroflot flight SU2585.
Convulsions, paralysis and respiratory failure: How Novichok attacks nervous system
Novichok is a group of nerve agents which are more potent and lethal than VX or sarin. They are made of two separate non-toxic substances that work as a nerve agent when brought together.
They work by attacking the nervous system and stopping chemical messages from being transmitted around the body.
This causes the heart to slow down and the airways to become constricted, which can lead to suffocation or brain damage.
Breathing is disrupted as the muscles struggle to contract normally, while fluid may build up on the lungs. Symptoms can start within seconds or minutes of being exposed and include convulsions, paralysis and respiratory failure.
Video: What Novichok is – and how it affects the body
Nerve agents including Novichok can be inhaled as a fine powder, absorbed through the skin or ingested.
Experts said medics would probably have relied on three chemicals to treat the Skripals after they were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury in March.
Paramedics are likely to have used diazepam to prevent convulsions, while they worked out what was responsible for the symptoms.
Doctors may later have administered atropine, which counteracts the effect of the nerve agent, maintaining heart rate and stopping the secretion from entering the lungs.
An oxime, which pulls the nerve agent off the enzyme, could also have been used to help the acetylcholinesterase enzyme start functioning again.
The patient’s body itself will also work to reproduce the blocked enzyme and this process will be accelerated if they have received a strong dose of nerve agent.
When Mr Skripal and his daughter were discharged, the hospital warned that they may require further treatment in the future.
Skripal ‘briefed intelligence officers in Europe’
British security services allegedly sent Col Skripal to Eastern Europe to share Russian spy secrets, reports Victoria Ward.
The former Russian spy is said to have travelled widely, offering information on Russian espionage to security officers in both Prague and Estonia.
Such briefings have been cited as a possible motive for Russia’s attempt to kill both Col Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
A visit to Prague in 2012, when he reportedly provided information about Russian espionage methods and the activities of his former colleagues operating in Europe, was described as “beneficial” and his information, although dated, was deemed valuable.
He arrived in the city shortly after his wife, Lyudmila, died. But although he was grieving, he was in “good spirits,” drinking with intelligence officers and joking that his doctor had prescribed whiskey for high blood pressure.
One agent suggested that although he was in poor health, his mind was sharp.
In fact, Col Skripal was so helpful that Czech intelligence officers continued to meet with him, reportedly making several trips to Britain in subsequent years.
The former spy is said to have visited Estonia as recently as June 2016, in which “very sensitive information” was discussed with a “select group of intelligence officers”. MI6 helped facilitate the meeting, it is claimed.
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