Czechs evict 18 Russian envoys and accuse Moscow of bombing the ammunition depot

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A car pulls into the Russian embassy in Prague

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By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic has expelled 18 Russian diplomats on suspicion that Russian intelligence services were involved in an ammunition depot explosion in 2014, the government said on Saturday.

The Central European country is a NATO and EU member state, and the evictions and allegations have sparked the biggest dispute with Russia since the end of the communist era in 1989.

His actions could lead Russia to consider closing the Czech embassy in Moscow, a diplomatic source quoted by Russian news agency Interfax suggested.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in a live televised briefing that “there is reasonable suspicion about the involvement of officers of the Russian secret service GRU … in the explosion of an ammunition depot in the Vrbetice region”.

In October 2014, several explosions shook the Vrbetice depot, 330 km southeast of Prague, killing two employees of a private company that rented the site from a state military organization.

Babis called the circumstances “unprecedented and scandalous,” while a Russian lawmaker quoted by Interfax called his claim absurd.

The US Embassy in Prague said on Twitter that Washington “stands by its staunch ally, the Czech Republic. We appreciate your significant efforts to get Russia to pay for its dangerous actions on Czech soil.”

Acting Czech Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said the 18 employees at the Russian embassy who were identified as secret service personnel would be asked to leave within 48 hours.

LINK TO SCRIPAL POISON?

Hamacek drew a parallel with the 2018 UK poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal, and Czech police separately said they were looking for two men holding Russian passports in connection with serious criminal activity on behalf of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

These were the aliases used by two Russian intelligence officers charged by British prosecutors with Skripal’s attempted murder. She and Moscow both denied involvement.

Hamacek said he had “decided to exclude all employees of the Russian embassy in Prague who have been clearly identified by our intelligence services as officers of the Russian secret services SVR and GRU”.

Interfax news agency quoted Vladimir Dzhabarov, the first deputy chairman of the House of Lords Committee on International Affairs, as saying that Prague’s claims are absurd and that Russia’s response should be proportionate.

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

The attack sparked the largest wave of diplomatic displacement between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

Czech police said Petrov and Boshirov, whose maiden names were given by British government documents as Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepigas, also used a Moldovan passport in the name of Nicolai Popa and a Tajik passport in the name of Ruslan Tabarov.

Police said both men were in the Czech Republic from October 11-16, 2014, the day of the explosion. They were located first in Prague and later in the eastern regions where the depot is located.

Russia would not extradite them, Interfax said, citing an unnamed source.

“Russia’s main law prohibits the extradition to a foreign state of Russian citizens accused of having committed a crime on the territory of a foreign state,” the source was quoted as saying.

Babis said the Czech investigation linked the suspects to a GRU unit 29155 of the Russian military intelligence service.

The New York Times reported in 2019 that 29155 was an elite unit within the Russian intelligence system that knew about subversion, sabotage, and assassination.

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