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Have Russian spies used French alps as a ‘rear base’ for secret missions?

A group of over a dozen Russian spies belonging to an elite unit of military intelligence that carried out operations in Europe including the attempted poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal used a French alpine region as a rear base, a report said.

The Le Monde daily said an investigation by British, Swiss, French, and US intelligence had drawn up a list of 15 members of the 29155 unit of Russia’s GRU military spy agency who moved within Europe from 2014-2018.

It said they had all at some point passed through France’s southeastern alpine region of the Haute-Savoie close to the Swiss and Italian borders, including notably the towns of Chamonix, Evian and Annemasse.

Le Monde published a list of 15 Russian members of the unit, which it said added five more names to those already published by online investigative outlets such as Bellingcat and The Insider.

It said that the Western intelligence services began the investigation retrospectively after the attempted poisoning of Skripal in the English town of Salisbury in March 2018.

Britain and its allies accuse the Kremlin of seeking to assassinate Skripal, a charge vehemently denied by Russia.

The unit was also active in areas such as Bulgaria, Moldova, and Montenegro.

The paper said some agents came to France repeatedly, others just once or twice. One possibility is that by staying in the French region, the agents hoped to shake off any suspicion before they carried out their missions.

Those who stayed in the Haute-Savoie included Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – the cover names of the two GRU agents accused of carrying out the attack on Skripal.

The Western intelligence services have not so far found any material, including arms, left behind by the agents during their stays in France, Le Monde said.

But their presence has been confirmed by where they ate, stayed and also shopped in the Haute-Savoie, it said.

“The most likely hypothesis is to consider it (Haute-Savoie) as a rear base for all the clandestine operations carried out by unit 29155 in Europe,” said a senior French intelligence official.

The story came as Germany expelled two Russian diplomats after prosecutors said Moscow could be behind the killing of a former Chechen rebel commander in a Berlin park.

Russia’s foreign ministry immediately pledged unspecified “retaliatory measures” for the expulsions, saying the accusations were “groundless and hostile”.

Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian national, was shot twice in the head at close range in Kleiner Tiergarten park on August 23, allegedly by a Russian man who was arrested shortly afterwards.

The suspect in the killing was said to be riding a bicycle and was seen by witnesses afterwards throwing the bike and a stone-laden bag with a gun into a river.

Police also recovered a wig he was alleged to have used.

He has until now been named by police only as Vadim S. but evidence revealed by German prosecutors on Wednesday indicated this may have been a fake identity.

The case has been compared with the poisoning of Skripal in Britain last year with a Soviet-era nerve agent, which plunged relations between London and Moscow into a deep freeze.

The attempted murder led to dozens of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions reminiscent of the cold war.

Speaking after a Nato summit, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had acted “because we have not seen Russia supporting us in clearing up this murder”.

The investigation is now in the hands of German federal prosecutors, who handle intelligence cases.

“There is sufficient factual evidence to suggest that the killing … was carried out either on behalf of state agencies of the Russian Federation or those of the Autonomous Chechen Republic,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

Chechnya has been led with an iron fist since 2007 by Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin ally.

Outlining the results of their investigation so far, prosecutors said Vadim had travelled from Moscow to Paris on August 17 and then on to Warsaw on August 20 before travelling to Berlin.

Prosecutors said his visa for travelling to Europe indicated he was a civil engineer working for a company in Saint Petersburg.

But the company was not operational and a fax number for the firm was registered to another company belonging to Russia’s defence ministry.

South China Morning Post

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