Britain to expel 23 Russian diplomats over chemical attack on ex-spy

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Britain is expected to expel 23 Russian diplomats, the biggest such expulsion since the Cold War, signaling a plunge in relations to their lowest point in decades in the wake of a chemical attack on a former Russian spy in southern England.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the House of Commons on her government’s reaction to the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, in London, March 14, 2018. Parliament TV handout via REUTERS

Prime Minister Theresa May pointed the finger of blame firmly at Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday as she outlined a series of retaliatory measures in parliament.

Russia denies any involvement in the attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who have been critical in hospital since they were found unconscious on March 4 on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury.

May announced measures including the potential freezing of Russian state assets that pose a security threat, new laws to counter hostile state activity and a downgrading of Britain’s attendance at the soccer World Cup in Russia.

 She had given Moscow until midnight on Tuesday night to explain how the Novichok nerve agent came to be deployed on the streets of Salisbury, saying either the Russian state was responsible or it had lost control of a stock of the substance.

“Their response demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events,” May said in a statement to parliament. “They have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.”

May said the only possible conclusion was that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of the Skripals and the harm to Nick Bailey, a police officer who is in a serious condition after being exposed to the nerve agent.

Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain before being arrested in Moscow and later jailed in 2006. He was freed under a spy swap deal in 2010 and took refuge in Britain.

“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” she said.

The Russian embassy in London described the steps announced by May as “unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted”. Moscow has repeatedly warned London to expect retaliation. (Excerpts from Reuters)

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