‘He was a good kid’: Skripal poisoning suspect chose Russian army career after a childhood around soldiers

The man accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal grew up in a family with ties to the Russian army and signed up for officer training straight out of school, according to neighbours from his home town near the Chinese border.

Anatoly Chepiga,  who neighbours confirmed is the true identity of one of the alleged Salisbury nerve agent attackers, was raised in a single-storey white-brick house with a corrugated iron roof directly across a dirt road from the high school where he was a star footballer.

With three bedrooms, central heating and indoor plumbing, it was an affluent residence for the remote village of Berezovka, where many residents live in traditional stove-heated wooden cottages to this day.

But for neighbours here, the special forces colonel wanted by Britain for a nerve agent attack is fondly remembered as a conscientious student and keen sportsman whose glittering military career made his family proud.

“Yes, that’s him. I was friends with his father. He was a good kid,” Anatoly Chepaikin said on Friday when shown photographs of the man British authorities named as “Ruslan Boshirov.”

British authorities last month charged two Russians travelling under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov with carrying out the Salisbury attack in March.

Documents and photographs published by the investigative group Bellingcat suggested that the man claiming to be “Ruslan Boshirov,” was actually Anatoly Chepiga, a colonel in the same GRU military intelligence agency in which Mr Skripal served.

Multiple neighbours and acquaintances in Chepiga’s home village, 5000 miles east of Moscow, confirmed to the Daily Telegraph, the first Western media to visit, that Boshirov and Chepiga are the same man.

“Oh, how he’s aged! He looks so old! That’s because he was at war,” Chepiga’s old neighbour Valentina Kharchenko said when shown a picture of “Boshirov” arriving at Gatwick airport in March.

A former school friend who would give his name only as Alexander said he had recognised Chepiga when the first photographs of Salisbury poisoning suspects were published in the media in September.

Mounting evidence about Chepiga’s real identity contradicts Vladimir Putin’s claim that the pair were civilians.

In fact, records show Mr Putin appointed Colonel Chepiga a Hero of the Russian Federation, Russia’s highest honour, in 2014.  The medal is typically presented by the Russian president in person.

Mr Putin’s spokesman said on Friday he had “no information” about Chepiga’s award and didn’t want to “continue these baseless discussions”.

In a September interview with Russian state channel RT, the suspected assassins claimed they were sport nutrition salesmen who visited Salisbury to look at the “famous cathedral”.

Chepiga was born in Nikolayevka, a village near the Amur River that separates the country from China, in 1979. He grew up in Berezovka, a nearby village of 3,000 people that was founded by sectarian Orthodox Old Believers in the 19th century.

Located in a highly militarised zone along the Chinese border, the village was the site of a base where a battalion of engineers and sappers was headquartered.

China and the Soviet Union fought a brief border war in 1969 over disputed territories including an area along the Amur south of Berezovka.

Chepiga’s father Vladimir and mother Tatyana were both employed at the base, according to records seen by The Telegraph.

Neighbours said Vladimir worked as a security guard and Tatyana as an accountant there.

Ms Kharchenko said Vladimir Chepiga would sell the soldiers fish he caught in the nearby Zeya river.

The base was closed after a 1997 agreement with China to reduce troop numbers within 100 kilometres of the border.

But even after the garrison departed, many school leavers from Berezovka chose military careers.

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