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Russia expels 20 Czech diplomats in deepening row

Riot police stand guard as people gather to protest in front of the Russian embassy in Prague, Czech Republic, on Sunday. Photo by Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE
Riot police stand guard as people gather to protest in front of the Russian embassy in Prague, Czech Republic, on Sunday. Photo by Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE

April 19 (UPI) -- Russia has ordered the expulsion of Czech diplomats from its borders, deepening a row between Moscow and Prague.

The Kremlin's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Sunday the 20 diplomats from the Czech Republic had by the end of Monday to leave the country, after the Czech Republic accused Russian secret agents of operating within its borders and being behind the Vrbetice ammunition depot explosion of 2014 that killed two people.

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On Saturday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic Jan Hamacek gave 18 Russian diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, accusing them in a statement of being agents of the Russian intelligence agencies behind the deadly blast.

"We have expelled everyone who can be proven to be affiliated with two Russian secret services," he said in a statement posted to his Facebook page. "This is such an intervention that they will hopefully not recover from it for a long time."

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Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov -- two Russian men Britain has charged with attempted murder for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the city of Salisbury in 2018 -- were also charged Saturday in connection to a "serious crime," Czech authorities said.

Hamacek said they received information on Friday that officers of the Russian secret service were involved in the explosion of the munitions warehouse nearly a decade ago.

He added authorities raided two Russian secret services' residences that "will significantly weaken the hostile activities of Russian agents not only against the Czech Republic, but also our allies."

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Hamacek also said he will speak about the situation before the European Union's foreign ministers' meeting on Monday.

Russia described the accusations as "absurd" and "far-fetched" in a statement on Sunday, calling the move to expel its diplomats "a continuation of a series of anti-Russian actions" the country has taken in recent years.

"You can't help but see the American footprint here," its foreign ministry said. "In an effort to please the U.S. against the background of recent U.S. sanctions against Russia, the Czech authorities have even surpassed their overseas masters in this part."

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Vitezslav Pivonka, the Czech ambassador to Russia, was summoned to the ministry in protest "against the unfriendly act of the Czech authorities," it said.

On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden sanctioned nearly three dozen Russian individuals and entities on accusations of attempting to influence and interfere with the 2020 presidential election. The Kremlin, in response, ordered 10 U.S. diplomates to leave Russia.

Britain on Sunday said it stands in support of its Czech allies "who exposed the lengths that the Russian intelligence services will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations in Europe."

"We are as determined and committed as ever to bring those responsible for the attack in Salisbury to justice, and commend the actions of the Czech authorities to do the same," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement. "Russia must desist from these actions, which violate the most basic international norms."

Ned Price, the State Department's spokesman, said the U.S. supports the Czech Republic's "firm response against Russia's subversive actions."

"We must act firmly in response to Russian actions that compromise the territorial integrity, energy security or critical infrastructure of our allies and partners," he said in a tweet.

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