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Czechs expel 18 Russian diplomats over link to ammunition depot blast

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The Czech Republic is expelling 18 Russian diplomats over suspicions that Russian intelligence services were involved in an ammunition depot explosion in 2014, Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said on Saturday.

A diplomatic source cited by Interfax suggested the expulsions could prompt Russia to shut the Czech Republic's embassy in Moscow.

"There is well-grounded suspicion about the involvement of officers of the Russian intelligence service GRU... in the explosion of ammunitions depot in the Vrbetice area," Babis told a briefing shown live on television.

A Russian lawmaker cited by the Interfax news agency called the allegation absurd.

Several explosions shook the Vrbetice ammunition depot, 330 km southeast of Prague, on Oct. 16, 2014. They killed two employees of a private company that was renting the depot from a state military organisation.

Hamacek said 18 Russian embassy staff identified as secret service personnel would be ordered to leave the NATO country within 48 hours.

The Interfax news agency cited Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of the upper house's international affairs committee, as saying Prague's claims were absurd and Russia's response should be proportionate.

Separately, Czech police said on Saturday they were searching for two men carrying various passports, including Russian ones in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Those names were the aliases used by two Russian military intelligence officers who British prosecutors charged with the attempted murder on British soil of Russian spy Sergei Skripal. They and Moscow both denied involvement.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in March 2018.

The attack prompted the biggest wave of diplomatic expulsions between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

© Thomson Reuters 2021.

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Czech police said on Saturday they were searching for two men carrying various passports, including Russian ones in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Those names were the aliases used by two Russian military intelligence officers who British prosecutors charged with the attempted murder on British soil of Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

Wow , same names

KGB working overtime

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Older Czech police remember what it was like under the USSR rule. For example, the last hotel in Praha where I stayed had phones that "auto-answered" without ringing. I'd disable that "feature" every day only to find it re-enabled in the evening.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Actually, seems I erred a bit

it's different names on the passports but the same faces on the passport photos, plus passports list they're from Tajikistan and Moldova, instead of Russia in their Salisbury passports. But they used the same names at Prague Airport as the ones in Salisbury, UK

For Czech police, that included the October 2014 explosion. A crucial find was an email sent to Imex Group, the company which operated the depot.

The email claimed to come from the National Guard of Tajikistan (it was later traced to an user in Russia). It asked for two men to be given access to the site for an inspection visit. Scans of their passports were attached. The men were said to be Ruslan Tabarov from Tajikistan and Nicolaj Popa, a Moldovan citizen.

The pictures on the passports match those of the two men accused by Britain of the Salisbury poisoning.

The two men travelled to the UK in March 2018 under the names Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov. The pair then appeared on Russian TV denying involvement, claiming they were sports nutritionists who visited Salisbury to see the spire of the cathedral.

On 11 October 2014, the men used the same cover identities they used in Salisbury - Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov - to arrive at Prague airport. They stayed in Prague for two days. They then booked into accommodation in Ostrava, near the ammunition depot on 13 October. They were booked to stay until the 17 October.

The explosion took place on the 16th, and that day the pair headed to Vienna airport to fly to Moscow. The only people to die were two innocent Czech men working at the depot. Czech police issued pictures of the two suspects saying they wanted to speak to them. Russian authorities say their constitution prevents the men being extradited.

Why would Russian intelligence blow up the arms depot? One of the people storing weapons there was a Bulgarian arms dealer called Emilian Gebrev

In April 2015, six months after the Czech explosion, Gebrev fell seriously ill in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. After a month in hospital, he was released but then fell sick again. Despite suspicions, Bulgarian authorities made little progress amid talk it was simply food poisoning. It was only after events in Salisbury in 2018 that people paid more attention.

Surveillance of that car park released by a Bulgarian prosecutor last year shows one man approaching the cars of Gebrev, as well as his son and business partner who would also fall ill. A toxic substance is believed to have been smeared on the handles - similar to the way Novichok was placed on the handle of Sergei Skripal's house.

The pair involved in Salisbury and now linked to the Czech explosion have not been seen since they were identified in 2018.

Same photos, different names and countries on the passports, same poisoning technique - this should dispel any more ideas that they're mere tourists

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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