Russia to expel UK diplomats as crisis over nerve toxin attack deepens

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

ASTANA/LONDON— Russia is set to expel British diplomats in retaliation for Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to kick out 23 Russians as relations with London crashed to a post-Cold War low over an attack with military-grade nerve agent on English soil.

After the first known offensive use of such a weapon in Europe since World War Two, May blamed Moscow and gave 23 Russians who she said were spies working under diplomatic cover at the London embassy a week to leave.

Russia has denied any involvement, cast Britain as a post-colonial power unsettled by Brexit, and even suggested London fabricated the attack in an attempt to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

Asked by a Reuters reporter in the Kazakh capital if Russia planned to expel British diplomats from Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov smiled and said: “We will, of course.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia could announce its response at any minute.

Britain, the United States, Germany and France jointly called on Russia on Thursday to explain the attack. US President Donald Trump said it looked as though the Russians were behind it.

A German government spokesman called the attack “an immense, appalling event”. Chancellor Angela Merkel said an EU summit next week would discuss the issue, in the first instance to seek clarity, and that any boycott of the soccer World Cup, which Russia is hosting in June and July, was not an immediate priority.

Russia has refused Britain’s demands to explain how Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military, was used to strike down Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, in the southern English city of Salisbury.

Britain has written to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, which monitors compliance with the global convention outlawing the use of such weapons, to obtain independent verification of the substance used.

Skripal, a former colonel in the GRU who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence, and his daughter have been critically ill since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a bench.

A British policeman was also poisoned when he went to help them is, and is in a serious but stable condition.— Reuters.

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