By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic is expelling 18 Russian diplomats on suspicions that Russian intelligence services were involved in an ammunition explosion in 2014, the government said on Saturday.
This central European state is a member of NATO and the EU, and the deportations and allegations have caused the biggest conflict with Russia since the end of the communist era in 1989.
The country’s actions could prompt Russia to consider shutting down the Czech embassy in Moscow, a diplomatic source cited by Russian news agency Interfax.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in a televised press conference that there was “reasonable suspicion of the involvement of officers of the Russian intelligence agency GRU … in the blast. ammunition warehouse in the Vrbetice area. “
Several explosions rocked the Vrbetice warehouse, 330 km (205 miles) southeast of Prague, in October 2014, killing two employees of a private company who were leased the site from a military organization. nationality.
Babis called the episode “unprecedented and infamous”, while a Russian lawmaker cited by Interfax described his accusations as absurd.
The US Embassy in Prague said on Twitter that Washington “stands side by side with its steadfast ally, the Czech Republic. We appreciate their important action in imposing costs on Russia for their actions.” Dangerous activities on Czech soil. “
Acting Czech Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said 18 Russian embassy staff, identified as secret agents, would be ordered to leave within 48 hours.
LINKS TO SKRIPAL LEVELS?
Hamacek said in parallel with the poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018, and the Czech police said they were individually tracing two men with Russian passports who were involved in serious criminal activity. nominally Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.
Those are the aliases used by two Russian military intelligence officers who have been charged with Skripal’s assassination by British prosecutors. They and Moscow both denied involvement.
Hamacek said he had “decided to expel all the staff at the Russian embassy in Prague, who are clearly identified by our Secret Service as officers of the Russian Secret Service, the SVR and the GRU.”
The Interfax news agency quoted Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of the Senate’s international affairs committee, saying that Prague’s statement was unreasonable and that Russia’s response should be commensurate.
Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent in the UK city of Salisbury in March 2018.
The attack caused the largest wave of diplomatic expulsion between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Czech police said Petrov and Boshirov, whose birth names were given by British government documents as Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepigas, also used Moldovan passports with the name Nicolai Popa and a Tajik passport issued under the name. Ruslan Tabarov.
Police say both men are believed to have been in the Czech Republic from October 11 to October 16, 2014, the date of the explosion. They were first in Prague and then in the eastern regions where the general depot is located.
Russia will not extradite them, Interfax said, citing an unnamed source.
“Russia’s main law prohibits the overseas extradition of Russian nationals accused of crimes on foreign territory,” the source said.
Babis said the Czech investigation linked the suspects with a GRU 29155 unit of Russian military intelligence.
The New York Times reported in 2019 that the 29155 is an elite unit inside the Russian intelligence system skilled in subversion, sabotage and assassination.