Czech Republic Expels 18 Russian Diplomats Over Depot Blast; Searches For Skripal Poisoning Suspects.

The Czech Republic has announced that it is expelling 18 Russian diplomats it considers spies after intelligence agencies concluded that Russian military agents were involved in a massive ammunition depot explosion on Czech soil in 2014.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said in an emergency press conference on April 17 that the decision to expel the diplomats was made on the basis of "unequivocal evidence" provided by investigators from the Czech intelligence and security services, and that there was "reasonable suspicion regarding a role of members of Russian military intelligence GRU's unit 29155 in the explosion of the munition depot in Vrbetice in 2014."

Babis said that the blast in the country's eastern Zlin region, near the Czech-Slovak border, "inflicted immense material damage, seriously endangered and disrupted the lives of many local residents, and, most importantly, killed two of our citizens -- unsuspecting, innocent fathers of their families."

As a sovereign state, Babis said, the Czech Republic "must react to these unprecedented revelations in a corresponding manner."

The blast on October 16, 2014, in Vrbetice set off 50 metric tons of stored ammunition. Two months later, another blast of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site.

Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said that all diplomats in the Russian Embassy who had been identified as intelligence operatives had been ordered to leave the Czech Republic within 48 hours.

Czech police announced the same day that they were searching for two suspected Russian agents carrying various passports, including Russian documents in the names of Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

The names match those of suspects in the poisonings of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Both Skripals survived the attack, which was carried out using the banned Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.

An investigation by Bellingcat later identified the two suspects as Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga.

Hamacek said the situation would significantly harm Czech-Russian relations, saying that, "We’re in a similar situation like Britain in the attempted poisoning case in Salisbury.”

A representative of the Russian Embassy in Prague confirmed to Interfax that it had been informed of the expulsions and that Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Zmeyevsky had been summoned to the Czech Foreign Ministry.

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin.

Following Babis's announcement, the U.S. Embassy in Prague tweeted that “the United States stands with its steadfast ally, the Czech Republic. We appreciate their significant action to impose costs on Russia for its dangerous actions on Czech soil.”

With reporting by AP, Seznam Spravy, Reuters, and Interfax

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