Russia expels 20 Czech diplomats in retaliatory move over explosion row

A day after the Czech Republic expelled 18 Russian diplomats, Russia expelled 20 Czech Republic diplomats from the country.

Czech local intelligence agents say the diplomats are Russian intelligence operatives. They are suspected of involvement in an explosion at an arms depot in 2014 which killed two people.

European Union foreign ministers are set to discuss the accusation at a meeting later.

Moscow has given the Czech diplomats a day to leave while the Czech Republic has given the Russians 72 hours.

Russia’s foreign ministry called the Czech decision “unprecedented” and a “hostile act”.

“In their desire to please the United States against the background of recent US sanctions against Russia, Czech authorities in this respect even outdid their masters from across the pond,” said a foreign ministry statement.

What Czech officials claim?

Czech authorities say the diplomats are believed to be intelligence operatives, accusations the Russians have classed as unfounded and absurd.

The explosion tore apart an ammunition storage depot in a forest at Vrbětice in the Czech Republic on 16 October 2014.

Windows in nearby buildings were blown out and local schools were evacuated as emergency vehicles rushed to the scene. The remains of two men who worked at the site were found more than a month later.

The blast was assumed to have been an accident.

Czech Police have identified two men in connection with the blast – Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepigov – who are also accused of involvement in the Salisbury poisonings in 2018.

Sergei Skripal, a former double Russian agent, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the English town, while a local woman, Dawn Sturgess, was killed months later by Novichok from a discarded perfume bottle.

Investigative site Bellingcat identified the Salisbury suspects Ruslan Boshirov as Anatoly Chepiga, and Alexander Petrov as Alexander Mishkin, both Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU intelligence agency.

The men booked accommodation in Ostrava, near the ammunition depot on 13 October. They were booked to stay until 17 October.

The explosion took place on the 16th and that day the pair headed to Austria to fly from Vienna airport to Moscow. The authorities do not appear to know exactly how the depot was blown up.

Czech media reports, quoting unnamed investigators, suggest arms and ammunition at the depot might have been destined for either Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian rebels or rebels in Syria fighting the Russian-backed government there.