Czech Republic expels 18 Russian diplomats, seeks Skripal suspects over 2014 blast

·2-min read

The Czech Republic is expelling 18 Russian diplomats over suspicions that Russian intelligence services were involved in an ammunition depot explosion in 2014, Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said on Saturday.

A diplomatic source cited by Interfax suggested the expulsions could prompt Russia to shut the Czech Republic's embassy in Moscow.

"There is well-grounded suspicion about the involvement of officers of the Russian intelligence service GRU... in the explosion of [an] ammunitions depot in the Vrbetice area," Babis told a briefing shown live on television.

Hamacek said 18 Russian embassy staff identified as secret service personnel would be ordered to leave the NATO country within 48 hours.

Several explosions shook the Vrbetice ammunition depot, 330km southeast of Prague, on October 16, 2014. They killed two employees of a private company that was renting the depot from a state military organisation.

The Czech Republic said Sunday it had informed NATO and European Union allies that it suspected Russia of causing the blast, and European Union foreign ministers were set to discuss the matter at their meeting on Monday.

A NATO official said that the alliance would support the Czech Republic as it investigated Russia's "malign activities", which were part of a pattern of "dangerous behaviour".

"Those responsible must be brought to justice," added the official, who declined to be named.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that the Czechs "have exposed the lengths that the GRU will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations".

Washington also offered Prague its support.

The Interfax news agency cited Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of the upper house's international affairs committee, as saying Prague's claims were absurd and Russia's response should be proportionate.

The expulsions prompted Russia’s Foreign Ministry to vow on Sunday to "force the authors of this provocation to fully understand their responsibility for destroying the foundation of normal ties between our countries".

Moscow took the first steps Sunday by summoning the Czech ambassador in Russia to the foreign ministry.

The row is the biggest between Prague and Moscow since the end of decades of Soviet domination of eastern Europe in 1989.

Separately, Czech police said on Saturday they were searching for two men carrying various passports, including Russian ones in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. The men are wanted for their potential role in the 2014 explosion, the organised crime squad (NCOZ) said on its website.

Those names were the aliases used by two Russian military intelligence officers who British prosecutors charged with the attempted murder on British soil of Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

They and Moscow both denied involvement.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in March 2018.

The attack prompted the biggest wave of diplomatic expulsions between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)