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Czechs to cut Russian diplomat numbers amid spat

By AFP - Apr 22,2021 - Last updated at Apr 22,2021

Russian Ambassador in Czech Republic Alecsandr Vladimirovich Zmeyevskiy (left) arrives for meeting with Czech Republic's Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, on Wednesday in Prague (AFP photo)

PRAGUE — The Czech government said on Thursday it would slap a ceiling on the Russian embassy workforce as part of a spiralling diplomatic row, which means dozens of staff will have to leave by next month.

Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said Russia will have until the end of May to withdraw its embassy's employees to reduce their numbers to the same level as those of the Czech embassy in Moscow.

The Russian foreign ministry threatened retaliation.

Prague currently has a total of 24 embassy staff in Russia, which in turn has 94 staff in Prague.

Dozens of diplomats were expelled earlier this week on both sides over allegations from the Czech government that Russian spies orchestrated a fatal explosion on Czech soil in 2014.

"In line with article 11 of the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations], we will limit the number of Russian embassy staff in Prague to the actual number at our embassy in Moscow," Kulhanek told reporters.

He gave Moscow an ultimatum Wednesday to allow 20 Czech diplomats who were expelled in a retaliatory move to return to work by noon (10:00 GMT) on Thursday, claiming they had done nothing wrong.

"Russia's reaction was absolutely disproportionate, the diplomats didn't do anything wrong," Kulhanek said on Thursday, pointing out that Prague had earlier expelled only 18 Russian diplomats over the spying suspicions.

The 1961 Vienna Convention says that if there is no agreement on the size of embassies between two countries, the receiving state may keep the foreign mission "within limits considered by it to be reasonable and normal".

Kulhanek said Prague was willing to discuss the set-up with Russia in the future.

But the Russian foreign ministry, which summoned the Czech ambassador to Moscow for Thursday afternoon, reacted angrily.

"Prague decided to take the road to destroy the relation and won't have to wait long for our answer," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.

Prague on Saturday accused the Russian foreign intelligence service of being behind an explosion at an ammunition depot near the eastern village of Vrbetice in 2014 that killed two Czech nationals.

Police are seeking two men in connection with that blast, as well as a second, non-fatal explosion nearby later the same year.

Britain has identified the same men as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.

Some media reports have suggested the arms may have been destined for Ukraine.

The explosions occurred the same year that Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and a conflict broke out between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels in the east of the country.

 

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