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Russia expels four French diplomats in escalating spy row

The Russian foreign ministry said had summoned the heads of missions from 23 countries to tell them that some of their diplomats had to leave. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russia has expelled four French diplomats in retaliation for France’s decision to expel the same number of Russian envoys over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, the French foreign ministry said.

“The decision taken by Russia to expel four members of the French embassy in Russia did not surprise us. We can only regret the move,” the ministry said in statement, but added that “up to now, Russia has refused to offer the expected explanations concerning the attack in Salisbury, England, (on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia),” it added.

Russia has now expelled diplomats from 23 countries, making it the biggest wave of tit-for-tat expulsions in recent memory.

The Russian foreign ministry said it had summoned the heads of missions from 23 countries to tell them that some of their diplomats had to leave.

Germany, Canada and Poland each said that Russia was expelling four of their diplomats while other countries including Ukraine, the Netherlands, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, Lithuania and Norway were also told to pull their envoys.

The moves came in retaliation for the coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats by Britain and its allies over a nerve agent attack against former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

“This is certainly not a surprise," Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said through a spokeswoman, referring to Moscow's expulsion of two of the country’s diplomats.

Britain has said it is “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the Skripal attack using the Novichok nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union, but Russia has angrily denied any involvement.

After the poisoning, Britain kicked off the global response by announcing it would expel 23 Russian diplomats, suspend high-level diplomatic contact with Moscow and not send any members of its royal family to the 2018 football World Cup hosted by Russia.

Russia responded by closing a British consulate in Saint Petersburg and the British Council educational and cultural organisation.

In further measures against the UK, the Russian foreign ministry gave Britain a month to cut the number of diplomatic staff in Russia to the same number Russia has in Britain.

On Thursday, Moscow had announced that it would expel 60 US diplomats and close the US consulate in Saint Petersburg after the expulsion of its own diplomats and the closure of one of its US consulates.

In all, more than 150 Russian diplomats have been ordered out of the US, EU members, NATO countries and other nations which are accusing Russia of being involved in the Skripal poisoning.

- with AFP