MOSCOW — Two people in a village in Russia’s Far East told The Washington Post on Friday they apparently recognized a suspect in recent nerve-agent poisonings in Britain as a former fellow villager and decorated military officer.
“For us simple residents, this is all just crazy,” she added.
Another resident said the man they know as Anatoly Chepiga — who once received a Hero of Russia award — appears to be one of the two suspects identified by British authorities as taking part in the March attack in the English city of Salisbury.
Earlier this week, two investigative news sites — one in Britain and the other in Russia — identified Chepiga as one of the suspects. They said he was a colonel in the GRU military intelligence agency who had served in Russia’s war-torn Chechnya region and, possibly, in Ukraine.
If confirmed, it would significantly strengthen Britain’s claims that the nerve-agent attack was directed by high-level Russian officials.
Russia denies any involvement in the Salisbury attack, and British officials have not commented on Chepiga.
But the mounting suggestions that Russian agents orchestrated the attack could put more pressure on Moscow, which has already suffered from a coordinated expulsion of its diplomats across the West as a result of the poisoning.
A Russian newspaper, Kommersant, pinpointed the village near the Chinese border where Chepiga grew up and said people there had recognized him.
Messages and phone calls by The Post to residents of the village, Berezovka, on Friday yielded fresh evidence that the suspect whose image and alleged undercover identity were first revealed by British police several weeks ago was, in fact, Chepiga.
British authorities said the suspect traveled to Britain using a passport identifying him as Ruslan Boshirov. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Boshirov and his alleged accomplice, identified by the British as Alexander Petrov, were known to be civilians.
In an interview on Russian state television, the two men said they were fitness-industry entrepreneurs who had traveled to Salisbury as tourists.
Britain’s Bellingcat website and Russia’s Insider this week published a report using government records and publicly available information to identify Boshirov as Chepiga.
British police have said the two men were Russian military intelligence officers traveling under aliases.
“Anatoly Chepiga is our countryman. I know him and his family very well,” Ivanova said. “They’re a wonderful, friendly and respected family.”
Alexey, a 37-year-old resident of Berezovka who works in the construction industry, told The Post that the man who called himself Boshirov resembled his former schoolmate Chepiga. Chepiga, Alexey said, went on to study at the Far-Eastern Military Command Academy in the nearby city of Blagoveshchensk and was known by villagers to have received the Hero of the Russian Federation award.
“People knew he studied at the military academy and that he got the Hero of Russia,” Alexey said in a phone interview, adding that he had not known that Chepiga worked in intelligence. “He was a positive guy — never got into fights or anything.”
Hours after the interview, Alexey wrote to The Post to say he had changed his mind and no longer believed that Chepiga and Boshirov were the same person. “This isn’t proven by anyone or by anything,” Alexey wrote. “It’s just a resemblance of photographs.”
The Kremlin on Friday also dismissed the latest reports.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists that “no one can tell which of these reports are false and which are true.”
As for the resemblance between Boshirov and Chepiga, Peskov referred to the impersonators of Soviet leaders who pose for pictures with tourists in central Moscow.
“We’ve got 10 Stalins and 15 Lenins running around Red Square, and all of them look extremely similar to the originals,” Peskov said.
British authorities said the two suspects were both GRU officers who had entered under false identities to poison Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.
Officials presented surveillance-camera images and other information tracking the two men moving through busy Gatwick Airport, crowded London train and subway stations and the streets of Salisbury — all while allegedly carrying the poison.
After Britain published its allegations, Putin said the two suspects were known to be civilians. The men then sat for an interview with RT, Russia’s state television network aimed at foreign audiences, to deny any connection to the attack. Both men denied working for the GRU.
In Berezovka, a village of several thousand people about 3,500 miles east of Moscow, Chepiga’s culpability in the attack appeared to be a matter of dispute.
Alla, the onetime family friend of Chepiga, said she could not imagine him being mixed up in the Skripal affair. She said that Chepiga’s parents left the village about five years ago and that she had last seen him no more recently than 10 years ago.
“We are totally at a loss as to how this could have happened — he was raised in the spirit of patriotism,” Alla said. “What happened has absolutely nothing to do with that.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow and William Booth in London contributed to this report.