Czech Republic expels 18 Russian diplomats over 2014 explosion, ties to Skripal poisoning

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced the move at a surprise press conference on Saturday evening.

Jason Pirodsky

Written by Jason Pirodsky Published on 17.04.2021 20:51:00 (updated on 17.04.2021) Reading time: 2 minutes

The Czech Republic will expel 18 Russian diplomats from the country over suspected Russian involvement in two 2014 warehouse explosions that resulted in two deaths and large-scale evacuations.

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Interior Minister Jan Hamáček announced the move at a surprise press conference on Saturday evening.

At the same time, Czech police have announced the search for two men travelling in the area on Russian passports at the time of the explosions.

The photographs supplied by Czech police match those of two men identified by UK police as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England.

According to Czech police, the two men were travelling under passports bearing the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, the same names used by the suspects in the Skripal poisoning. The men were later identified as Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, operatives in the Russian foreign intelligence agency GRU.

The 18 diplomats expelled from the Czech Republic, employees of the Russian Embassy in Prague, have been given 48 hours to leave the country. They were also identified by Babiš as members of Russian foreign intelligence.

An October 2014 explosion of an ammunition depot in Vrbětice, in the Zlín region of the Czech Republic, killed two people and resulted in the evacuation of nearby areas. A second explosion at a nearby depot in December 2014 killed none but resulted in further evacuations.

Both depots were both operated by Ostrava-based company Imex Group. A lawyer for the company stated at the time that the depots, which contained weaponry and ammunition, could not have exploded on their own.

In expelling the Russian diplomats today, Babiš stated that there was reasonable suspicion of the involvement members of the Russian intelligence service GRU in the 2014 explosions.

"The Czech Republic will expel 18 employees of the Russian embassy," Babiš tweeted after the press conference.

"There is a reasonable suspicion of the involvement of officers of the Russian secret service GRU in the explosions of ammunition depots in Vrbětice. I appreciate the work of our security forces, the police and, in particular, the NCOZ in exposing this unprecedented scandalous event."

Further evidence has yet to be presented by Czech officials.

Czech Interior Minister Hamáček is also serving as interim Minister of Foreign Affairs after the dismissal of Tomáš Petříček earlier this week. He had also planned to travel to Moscow for negotiations on the Sputnik V vaccine, but those plans were abruptly cancelled.

"We will keep our partners from the European Union and NATO informed and ask for their support," Hamáček said at the press conference.

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