International News

Britain expels 23 Russian diplomats over chemical attack on ex-spy

Britain will expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to a nerve agent attack on a Russian former double agent in southern England, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday, adding it was the biggest single expulsion in over 30 years.
May told parliament Britain would also freeze Russian state assets wherever there was evidence of a threat and downgrade its attendance at the soccer World Cup this summer.
Former spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury on March 4 and remain in hospital in a critical condition.
May has said the pair were attacked with Novichok, a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent. She had asked Moscow to explain whether it was responsible for the attack or had lost control of stocks of the highly dangerous substance.
Russia has denied any involvement, and May told parliament Moscow had provided no credible explanation for the attack.
“There is no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury,” she said.
“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
May said the expulsion of the 23 diplomats, identified as undeclared intelligence officers, was the biggest single expulsion for over 30 years and would degrade Russian intelligence capabilities in Britain for years to come.
“We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents,” May said.
She said no ministers or members of the royal family would attend the World Cup in Russia.
Russia said Britain should expect retaliation for its actions.
Kremlin rejects ‘unfounded accusations’
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Wednesday rejected what he called Britain’s “unfounded accusations” and “ultimatums” over the poisoning of a former double agent in Britain.
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“Moscow does not accept unfounded accusations that are not based on evidence and a language of ultimatums,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“We are hoping that common sense will prevail,” he said, in the Kremlin’s first public response to British accusations that Russia could be behind the attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May’s deadline to explain how Skripal was poisoned in Britain with a highly toxic nerve agent invented by Russia.
“Moscow has nothing to do with the accident in Britain,” Peskov said, reiterating that Moscow was open to cooperate on the investigation.
He declined to comment on calls in the West to possibly invoke NATO’s principle of common defence, saying Moscow hopes that other countries would see there was no evidence to blame Russia for the poisoning attack.
“As far as a threat of isolation is concerned, we are hoping that common sense will prevail and other countries will at least think whether there is any proof or not and just how justified the rebukes against Moscow are,” Peskov said.
Lavrov slams May
Lavrov also criticised May, who had said Russia was “highly likely” to be behind the attack. He accused her of vagueness in her accusations.
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“It is probably not very respectable and not very serious,” he said, accusing the British government of making “political scenes.”
He likened the British government to the notorious general prosecutor in Stalin’s purge trials in the 1930s, Andrei Vyshinsky.
He was famous for coining the phrase “confession is the queen of evidence.”
Lavrov said British authorities’ tactics even topped those of Vyshinsky.
“For them the queen of evidence is not confession but suspicion, which they themselves are putting forward,” he said.
“We will uphold international law,” he said, adding that London will “be responsible for an open attempt to crudely mislead the global community.”
British communications regulator Ofcom said it could review the licence of the Kremlin-backed RT broadcaster if Russian involvement in the poisoning were proven.
“Any illegal actions against any Russian media outlet in the United Kingdom will lead to retaliatory steps on the basis of reciprocity,” Peskov said.
Russia has demanded that Britain give Moscow access to samples of the nerve agent used on Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that Russia still did not have the samples or their description.
“We received zero information from the British side despite our request,” she told reporters.
“We don’t even have access to the Russian national who suffered” in the attack, she added.
In a terse comment on the poisoning earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin told the BBC: “Sort things out from your side and then we will discuss this with you.”