Czech police said on Saturday they were seeking two Russian men in connection with a 2014 blast that killed two people. The men, they said, hold passports used by the suspects in the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal.

The names match those used by the two men accused of poisoning Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the Soviet-era nerve agent novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018. Russia denied involvement in the poisoning, but about 300 diplomats were sent home in subsequent tit-for-tat expulsions.

“The two men were present on Czech territory in … October 2014,” when the Vrbetice blast occurred, the Czech organised crime squad said, adding that they also used Tajik and Moldovan identities.

The Czech government had earlier said it was expelling 18 Russian diplomats identified by local intelligence as secret agents of the Russian SVR and GRU services that are suspected of involvement in a 2014 explosion.

“Eighteen employees of the Russian embassy must leave our republic within 48 hours,” the interim foreign minister, Jan Hamáček, told reporters.

The prime minister, Andrej Babiš, said Czech authorities had “clear evidence” linking GRU officers to the explosion in an ammunition warehouse in 2014 that left two people dead.

“We have good reason to suspect the involvement of GRU officers from unit 29155 in the explosion at the ammunition warehouse in Vrbetice,” in the east of the country, Babiš said. He added he had received the information on Friday, without explaining why it had taken so long.

“The explosion led to huge material damage and posed a serious threat to the lives of many local people, but above all it killed two of our fellow citizens, fathers of families.”

Hamáček, who is the interior minister as well as serving as interim foreign minister after his predecessor was sacked earlier this week, said he was sorry that the incident would “fundamentally damage Czech-Russian relations”.

“We are in a situation similar to that in Britain following the attempted poisoning in Salisbury in 2018,” he said, referring to the case of Skripal.

Hamáček said he had summoned the Russian ambassador, Alexander Zmeyevsky, on Saturday evening to tell him about the decision.

On Thursday, the Czech Republic’s neighbour Poland said it had expelled three Russian diplomats for “carrying out activities to the detriment” of Poland.

Warsaw also expressed solidarity with the US, which earlier that day had announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats in retaliation for what Washington said was the Kremlin’s US election interference, a massive cyber-attack and other hostile activity.

The Guardian


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