The United Kingdom has expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for suspected involvement of Moscow in the poisoning of a former spy on British soil.
Announcing the move, the biggest such expulsion since the Cold War, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday that the people who were ordered to leave were “undeclared intelligence officers”.
The diplomats must leave the country within a week.
The expulsion came after Russia ignored a British deadline for explanation over a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian double agent, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter in England earlier this week.
On March 4, Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury. They remain critically ill in hospital.
British authorities suspect they were poisoned with a Russian-made nerve agent.
Speaking in parliament Wednesday, PM May pointed the finger firmly at Russian President Vladimir Putin, Reuters reports.
May had earlier given Moscow until midnight on Tuesday to explain how the Soviet-made Novichok nerve agent came to be deployed on the streets of Salisbury, saying either the Russian state was responsible or had lost control of a stock of the substance.
“Their response demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events,” May said in her statement to parliament.
“They have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.”
The only possible conclusion was that the Russian state was behind the attempted murder of the Skripals and the harm that befell Nick Bailey, a police officer who is in a serious condition after being exposed to the nerve agent, May said.
“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
Among other counter-measures, May announced the potential freezing of Russian state assets that pose a security threat, new laws to counter hostile state activity and a downgrading of Britain’s attendance at the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.
Russia, denying any involvement in the attack on Skripal and his daughter, vowed to swiftly retaliate against the British measures.
“The British government has made a choice in favor of confrontation with Russia,” Reuters cited the Russian foreign ministry as saying.
Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, repeated Moscow’s denial that it had anything to do with the poisoning and called for proof of its involvement.
The two governments blamed each other for the crisis.
“Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way,” said May.
Britain, which has received statements of support from the United States, the European Union and NATO, has said it will seek to coordinate an international response to the attack.
The White House issued a statement saying it shared Britain’s assessment that Russia was responsible and supported May’s decision to expel the diplomats “as a just response.”
Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain before being arrested in Moscow and later jailed in 2006. He was freed under a spy swap deal in 2010 and took refuge in Britain.
The attack on him was likened in Britain to the killing of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, a critic of Putin, who died in London in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium 210.
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