Brussels (Brussels Morning) Prague announced its decision to expel 18 Russian diplomats on Saturday over suspicions that Kremlin intelligence agencies were involved in an ammunition depot explosion in the Czech Republic in 2014, Reuters reported.
In a live television address, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said there was “well-grounded suspicion about the involvement of officers of the Russian intelligence service GRU… in the explosion of an ammunition depot in the Vrbetice area”.
A series of explosions took place in the Vrbetice depot in October 2014. The blasts killed two employees of a private company, which had been paying the state military for use of the remote facility, which is located some 330 kilometres southeast of Prague.
Acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamáček told media that 18 Russian embassy staff would be given 48 hours to leave the country. He said the 18 diplomats had been identified as intelligence operatives.
Hamáček said he “decided to expel all personnel at the Russian embassy in Prague who were clearly identified by our secret services as officers of Russia’s secret services, SVR and GRU”.
The Czech police are reportedly looking for two Russian intelligence operatives also suspected of involvement in the attempted murder of Russian defector Sergei Skripal. Named by British intelligence as Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepigas, the duo had used a number of other names and passports.
Police claim the two men were believed to have been in the Czech Republic from 11 to 16 October 2014, the period of the Vrbetice explosions. Records of their movement show them first arriving in Prague, and later in eastern regions, location of the depot. Czech intelligence also linked the two to the elite GRU unit 29155, notorious for its reputed skills in subversion, sabotage and assassination.
Russia has denied all charges. Moscow officials are calling the claims absurd and have announced a proportionate response, which could entail closure of the Prague embassy. The Russian Interfax agency cited an unnamed Kremlin source as confirming that Moscow would not extradite Mishkin and Chepigas.