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Russia: spy row with Britain linked to Western-backed rebels losing ground in Syria conflict

Moscow expelling 23 British diplomats after London made similar move against Russians following poisoning of double agent 

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2018, 7:23pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 6:29am

Russia on Saturday announced it is expelling 23 British diplomats and threatened further measures in retaliation in a growing diplomatic dispute over a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain.

It ordered the diplomats to leave within a week. It also ordered the British consulate in St. Petersburg to close and told the British Council to end its work in the country.

On Saturday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May told a Conservative Party forum in London that the UK may take further action against Russia in response.

“We anticipated a response of this kind and we will consider our next steps in the coming days, alongside our allies and partners,” May said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the West’s angry reaction to the attack is connected to the war in Syria.

Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reiterated Russian denials of involvement in the poisoning attack on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter and denied the existence of the nerve agent Novichok that Britain said was used against them.

Speaking on Russia-24 television, Zakharova said Britain is taking a tough line against Russia because of frustration at recent advances of Russian-backed Syrian government forces against Western-backed rebels.

Zakharova said the West is trying to “distract attention from what they did in Syria and Iraq” and that Britain “needs to somehow show the world that Russia is not in fact a peacekeeper but is playing its own game”.

The announcement of the expulsions followed on the heels of Britain’s order this week for 23 Russian diplomats to leave Britain because it said Russia was not cooperating in the case of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, both found March 4 poisoned by a nerve agent officials claim was developed in Russia. The Skripals remain in critical condition.

Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering the poisoning of the Skripals, without offering any evidence. Putin’s spokesman denounced the claim.

The Russian statement said the government could take further measures if Britain takes any more “unfriendly” moves toward Russia. British Ambassador Laurie Bristow was called to the Foreign Ministry on Saturday morning to be informed of the moves.

“This crisis has arisen as a result of an appalling attack in the United Kingdom, the attempted murder of two people, using a chemical weapon developed in Russia and not declared by Russia at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as Russia was and is obliged to do under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Bristow insisted after being informed of the expulsions. 

The source of the nerve agent – which Britain claims was Soviet-made Novichok – is unclear. Moscow has demanded samples.

Russia’s expulsion of diplomats “doesn’t change the facts of the matter” of the Skripals poisoning, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Saturday.

“Russia’s response doesn’t change the facts of the matter – the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable,” she told her Conservative Party’s spring forum.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse