The Czech Republic is expelling 18 Russian diplomats identified by its intelligence network as secret agents of Russian security services that have been blamed for a deadly explosion in the country in 2014.
The republic, which is a member of NATO and the European Union, announced the move on Saturday. The expulsions-and the allegations that precipitated them-have triggered the country’s biggest row with Russia since 1989.
“Eighteen employees of the Russian embassy must leave our republic within 48 hours,” acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Czech authorities had “clear evidence” linking officers from Russia’s SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, and the GRU, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, to the explosion that left two people dead in October 2014.
“We have good reason to suspect the involvement of GRU officers from unit 29155 in the explosion at the ammunition warehouse in Vrbetice” in the country’s east, Babis said.
The New York Times reported in 2019 that 29155 was an elite unit inside the Russian intelligence system skilled in subversion, sabotage and assassination.
Babis said he had received the information on Friday, without explaining why it had taken so long.
“The explosion led to huge material damage and posed a serious threat to the lives of many local people, but above all it killed two of our fellow citizens, fathers of families,” Babis said.
He called the circumstances “unprecedented and scandalous”.
The alleged Russian link with the explosion was expected to be addressed during a previously scheduled EU foreign ministers’ video conference on Monday, Hamacek said on Twitter.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of the international affairs committee of the Russian legislature’s upper house, described the Czech allegations as absurd, in comments reported by Russian news agency Interfax. Russia’s response would be proportionate, he said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Saturday that the Czechs know the consequences that will follow the expulsion of the diplomats. “Prague is well aware what follows such ‘tricks’,” she said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Sunday that Moscow’s retaliation will force Prague to fully understand its responsibility for destroying the foundation of normal bilateral ties.
The United States’ embassy in Prague said on Twitter that Washington “stands with its steadfast ally, the Czech Republic”.
It added: “We appreciate their significant action to impose costs on Russia for its dangerous actions on Czech soil.”
The Czech Republic becomes the third European country to expel Russian diplomats recently. Neighboring Poland said on Thursday it had ordered out three Russian diplomats for “carrying out activities to the detriment” of the country.
On Saturday, Ukraine said it was expelling a senior diplomat at the Russian embassy.
“A senior diplomat of the Russian embassy in Kiev must leave Ukraine within 72 hours, starting April 19,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said.
“We strongly protest against the unlawful detention of an employee of Ukraine’s consulate general in St Petersburg on April 16 and against ordering him to leave Russia.”
Earlier that day, the Russian Foreign Ministry informed Ukrainian Charge d’Affaires Vassily Pokotilo of the expulsion of the consul of Alexander Sosonyuk, Ukraine’s consulate general to St Petersburg.
Sosonyuk had been detained on Friday by the Russian Federal Security Service for allegedly obtaining classified data from the databases of Russian law enforcement agencies and the Federal Security Service.
Agencies contributed to this story.
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