Czechs Accuse Russia of ‘Terrorist Attack’ for Deadly 2014 Blast
(Bloomberg) -- The Czech Republic accused Russia of staging a terrorist attack on its soil after blaming a 2014 blast at a munitions warehouse on the same agents accused of poisoning former spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K.
With concern growing about Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine and treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the dispute has escalated diplomatic tensions between Prague and Moscow to the highest since the fall of communism. Russia has rejected the accusations as absurd.
Both sides have expelled a record number of diplomats and the Czechs are now pondering a further response after Russia left them with a skeleton staff at their embassy in Moscow. The government in Prague also asked its European Union and NATO allies to show solidarity by kicking the Kremlin’s intelligence officers out of their countries.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Prague had “shattered” a network of Russian operatives and called the blast an “unprecedented terrorist attack.” The explosion killed two people, forced the evacuation of hundreds more from surrounding villages and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.
“The reaction of the Russian side, regarding the number of our diplomats, is absolutely unacceptable,” Babis told reporters on Tuesday. “The Czech Republic did nothing against Russia. On the contrary, Russian agents operated on our soil.”
Chief Prosecutor Pavel Zeman on Monday confirmed that the two suspects used the identities of Alexander Petrov and Russian Boshirov when they traveled within the Czech Republic for about a week in October 2014. They’re the same men the U.K. identified as alleged operatives behind the failed assassination attempt by poisoning of former agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury four years later.
Czech authorities suspect them of trying to destroy export-bound munitions belonging to a Bulgarian arms dealer and believe the shipment was meant to explode after it left the country. The weapons merchant, Emilian Gebrev, later survived a poisoning attack in Bulgaria that police there said was linked to the Skripal case.
Read More: Bulgaria Names Russians Charged in Skripal-Linked Arms Case
Russia said Prague’s expulsion of 18 of its diplomats was meant to distract from reports of an alleged attempt to seize power in Belarus, saying the coup plot was hatched in consultation with the U.S. It accused Washington of manipulating the Czechs with “made-up pretexts.”
Moscow responded by sending 20 Czechs home, leaving only five diplomats at the Czechs’ Moscow embassy and paralyzing its operations. In contrast Russia still has 27 envoys and 67 other employees at the embassy in Prague.
The Czech cybersecurity office also warned on Tuesday that the standoff may lead to higher occurrence of hacking attacks. Acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek summoned Russian ambassador for Wednesday to protest against of his country’s actions.
Prague city hall also urged the government to demand Russia return land in the city’s Stromovka park that the embassy has been using since it was taken over by Soviet troops during their 1968 invasion that crushed the so-called Prague Spring.
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