PRAGUE -- The Czech Republic ordered 18 Russian diplomats to leave the country, accusing them of being spies after Czech intelligence linked Russian military agents to a massive ammunition depot explosion in 2014.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis told an emergency press conference on April 17 that the decision to expel the Russians was made on the basis of "unequivocal evidence" provided by investigators from the Czech intelligence and security services.
There is "reasonable suspicion regarding a role of members of Russian military intelligence…in the explosion of the munition depot in Vrbetice in 2014,” Babis said.
The Czech Republic "must react to these unprecedented revelations in a corresponding manner,” Babis said.
Jan Hamacek, the interior minister who is also acting foreign minister, said that the diplomats who had been identified as intelligence operatives had been ordered to leave the Czech Republic within 48 hours.
Hamacek said that the case would be discussed by European Union foreign ministers on April 19.
The October 16, 2014, blast in Vrbetice, in the eastern Zlin region, set off 50 metric tons of stored ammunition. Two months later, another blast of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site. Two people died.
The cause of the explosions has never been publicly revealed. It was unclear if there was new intelligence that prompted Czech authorities to make the announcement or why the government decided to move now against the Russians.
Unconfirmed media reports say that the ammunition and weaponry that was destroyed may have been intended for Ukraine, which in 2014 was battling Russia-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine.
In his announcement, Babis blamed the blasts on the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU, and specifically on a secretive unit known as Unit 29155.
That unit has been linked to a series of attempted assassination plots and other sabotage across Europe, including the 2018 poisoning of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
Skipal and his daughter Yulia nearly died that March after being exposed to what British authorities later concluded was Novichok, a powerful Soviet-era, military-grade nerve agent. A British woman who accidentally came into contact with the substance died.
As part of the government announcement on April 17, Czech police announced they were seeking two suspected Russian agents carrying various passports, including Russian documents, in the names of Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.
The names match those of the two men that Britain has blamed for the Skripal poisonings.
An investigation by the open-source investigation organization Bellingcat has identified the suspects as Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, and said they both worked for the GRU’s Unit 29155.
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 Foreign Ministry.
Moscow warned about consequences in a response to the expulsions from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
"Prague is well aware of what comes after such hocus-pocus," spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, according to Interfax.
Vladimir Japarov, first deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, told the state news agency TASS that the reaction "should be proportionate."
The U.S. Embassy in Prague tweeted following Babis's announcement 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.”