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A consulate staff member unties the flag lanyards on the Sankt Petersburg consulate balcony
Image: picture alliance/dpa/AP/D. Lovetsky

Russian diplomats return home amid Skripal row

March 31, 2018

Russia has sent two planes to collect 60 Russian diplomats from the US in the expanding row over an ex-spy's poisoning in Britain. In Russia's city of St. Petersburg, US consulate staff are completing their departure.


Russia sent two planes to the US on Saturday to collect dozens of Russian diplomats in the expanding row over the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy poisoning in Britain.

Russia's ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said 171 people including "all diplomats" and family members would leave on Saturday.

In St. Petersburg, workers at the US Embassy spent the day loading boxes and bags from the foreign outpost into trucks as part of a tit-for-tat departure of 60 American personnel. Russian officials had demanded the consulate close down by Saturday midnight.

Britain's Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that Moscow had told it to reduce its diplomatic staff inside Russia by more than 50 people, giving the UK one month to reduce its staff to match the new size of the Russian mission in London.

British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson on Saturday thanked international allies for their backing, saying the world needed to stay vigilant against Russia's evolving tactics.

"The world's patience with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin's repeated pattern of malign behaviour has worn thin," Williamson wrote in a Sunday Telegraph column.

"Putin is using growing hybrid capabilities to subvert, undermine, and influence countries around the world.

"It's vital for UK defence to keep evolving to meet the threats of tomorrow to keep our country safe and protect the hard-earned freedoms and way of life we enjoy today."

Expulsions expand

In all, more than 150 Russian diplomats have been ordered out of the US, EU member states and NATO affiliate nations in solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia in early March in the English city of Salisbury.

An initial batch of expulsions earlier this month saw Britain throw out 23 Russian diplomats while suspending high-level contact; Russia expelled 23 British diplomats in return.

Australia, which was told to withdraw two of its diplomats from Russia, said on Saturday that it, too, was expelling two Russian diplomats.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the expelled Russians as "undeclared intelligence officers."

However, Bulgaria, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said late Friday it expected more proof about the nerve agent attack and wanted to maintain communications with Moscow.

Russian plane searched in London?

Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy in London accused British authorities of searching an Aeroflot plane at one of London's airports.

In a press release posted to Twitter, the embassy called the alleged search a "blatant provocation."

British officials denied the claim.

"Please be advised that Metropolitan Police are not conducting a search of an Airbus inbound from Moscow at Heathrow," police had tweeted, without giving further details.

Security Minister Ben Wallace also added: "It is routine for (Britain's border agency) to search aircraft to protect the UK from organised crime and from those who attempt to bring harmful substances like drugs or firearms into the country." 

The Russian Embassy said UK officials had failed to provide appropriate clarification and that it had sent a diplomatic note demanding an explanation.

"The incident at Heathrow is in one way or another connected with the hostile policy that the UK government is conducting with regard to Russia," it said in its press release.

Read more: Spy assassinations: The top 5 deadly poisons

Britain considering request

The British Foreign Office on Friday continued to insist that the attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was a Russian attempt to assassinate "two people on British soil" in breach of international law.

On Saturday, the Foreign Office added that it was still considering Moscow's request for consular access to Yulia Skripal, who had been visiting from Russia when the attack occurred.

Read more: Novichok nerve agents – Russia's dangerous 'new' poison

Daughter 'talking'

Salisbury District Hospital said she was "improving rapidly" and was now in a stable condition. British BBC broadcasting said she was conscious and talking.

The 66-year-old Sergei Skripal, a former double agent, remained in a critical but stable condition, the hospital said.

The spy row amounts to the biggest wave of tit-for-tat expulsions in recent memory.

Sergei Skripal moved to Britain in 2010 during a spy swap after selling secrets to the British.

ipj/tj (AFP, dpa, AP)

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