Russia, in spy rift riposte, expels 59 diplomats from 23 countries

Ambassadors' cars with Lithuanian, Croatian and Swedish flags are parked near the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, Russia March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Christian Lowe

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia expelled 59 diplomats from 23 countries on Friday and said it reserved the right to take action against four other nations in a worsening standoff with the West over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.

Russia said it was responding to what it called the baseless demands for scores of its own diplomats to leave a slew of mostly Western countries that have joined London and Washington in censuring Moscow over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

A day earlier, Moscow ordered the expulsion of 60 U.S. diplomats and the closing of the U.S. consulate in St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, in retaliation for the biggest ejection of diplomats since the Cold War.

Preparations appeared to be under way on Friday to close the St Petersburg mission down, with a removals truck making repeated journeys to and from the consulate which took delivery of a large pizza order for its staff.

Russia summoned senior envoys on Friday from most of the other countries that have expelled Russian diplomats and told them it was expelling a commensurate number of theirs.

Russia has already retaliated in kind against Britain for ejecting 23 diplomats over the first known use of a military-grade nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. British ambassador Laurie Bristow was summoned again on Friday.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Bristow had been told London had just one month to cut its diplomatic contingent in Russia to the same size as the Russian mission in Britain.

A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office did not say how many British diplomats would be affected, but said Russia’s response was regrettable and Moscow was in flagrant breach of international law over the killing of the former spy.

The poisoning, in southern England, has united much of the West in taking action against what it regards as the hostile policies of President Vladimir Putin. This includes the United States under President Donald Trump, who Putin had hoped would improve ties.

Russia rejects Britain’s accusation it stood behind the attack and has cast the allegations as part of an elaborate Western plot to sabotage East-West relations and isolate Moscow.

The hospital where she is being treated said on Thursday that Yulia Skripal was getting better after spending three weeks in a critical condition due to the nerve toxin attack. Her father remains in a critical but stable condition.

The BBC, citing sources, reported on Friday that Yulia was “conscious and talking”.


During the course of Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned senior embassy officials from Australia, Albania, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Croatia, Ukraine, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada and the Czech Republic.

All were seen arriving in their official cars at the Foreign Ministry’s gothic building in Moscow.

“They (the diplomats) were handed protest notes and told that in response to the unwarranted demands of the relevant states on expelling Russian diplomats … that the Russian side declares the corresponding number of staff working in those countries’ embassies in the Russian Federation persona non grata,” the ministry said in a statement.

Four other countries — Belgium, Hungary, Georgia and Montenegro — had only “at the last moment” announced that they too were expelling Russian diplomats over the Skripal affair, and Moscow reserved the right to take retaliatory action against them too, it said.

Emerging from the Foreign Ministry building, German ambassador Rudiger von Fritsch said Russia had questions to answer about the poisoning of Skripal, but Berlin remained open to dialogue with Moscow.

The U.S State Department said after Russia announced the expulsions on Thursday evening that it reserved the right to respond further, saying the list of diplomats designated for expulsion by Russia showed Moscow was not interested in diplomacy.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in a conference call with reporters on Friday, disagreed with that assessment, saying that Putin still favored mending ties with other countries, including with the United States.

(Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Maxim Rodionov and Christian Lowe in Moscow, Toby Sterling in The Hague, Elisabeth O’Leary in London, Steve Scherer in Rome and Jussi Rosendahl in Helsinki; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Edmund Blair and Peter Graff)

Russia to respond appropriately to U.S. expulsion of Russian envoys: RIA

A Russian flag flies atop the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow will respond appropriately to the U.S. expulsion of Russian diplomats and closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, RIA news agency reported.

The United States said on Monday it would expel 60 Russian diplomats, joining governments across Europe in punishing the Kremlin for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain that they have blamed on Moscow.

The ministry said that not a single country has provided any evidence that Russia was behind the poisoning of the former Russian spy and his daughter, RIA reported.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Peter Graff)

Trump expels 60 Russians, closes Seattle consulate after UK chemical attack: officials

FILE PHOTO: The Russian embassy on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington December 29, 2016. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday ordered the expulsion of 60 Russians from the United States and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle over a nerve agent attack earlier this month in Britain, senior U.S. officials said.

The order includes 12 Russian intelligence officers from Russia’s mission to the United Nations headquarters in New York and reflects concerns that Russian intelligence activities have been increasingly aggressive, senior U.S. administration officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Editing by Franklin Paul)

UK says world’s patience is wearing thin with Russia’s Putin after chemical attack

British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson visits UK troops of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence battle group at the military base in Tapa, Estonia March 25, 2018. REUTERS/Janis Laizans

TALLINN (Reuters) – British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Monday that the world was united behind Britain’s stance over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and that patience was wearing thin with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Britain has blamed Russia for the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a military-grade Soviet-era nerve agent on March 4, winning the support of NATO and European leaders.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement and says Britain is orchestrating an anti-Russia campaign.

During a visit to Estonia, Williamson said the backing for Britain was in “itself a defeat for President Putin”.

“The world’s patience is rather wearing thin with President Putin and his actions, and the fact that right across the NATO alliance, right across the European Union, nations have stood up in support of the United Kingdom … I actually think that is the very best response that we could have,” he told reporters.

“Their (the Kremlin’s) intention, their aim is to divide and what we are seeing is the world uniting behind the British stance and that in itself is a great victory and sends an exceptionally powerful message to the Kremlin and President Putin.”

European Union member states agreed on Friday to take additional punitive measures against Russia over the attack on Skripal, found slumped on a bench with his daughter in the southern English city of Salisbury.

U.S. President Donald Trump is also considering the expulsion of some Russian diplomats, a source familiar with the situation said on Sunday.

Williamson also said he was surprised and disappointed by reports about European Union proposals to freeze Britain out of the Galileo satellite navigation project as part of negotiations over Britain’s exit from the bloc next year.

The Financial Times newspaper reported that the EU was looking to lock Britain’s space industry out of the 10 billion euro program to protect its security after Britain leaves the bloc next year.

“The United Kingdom has been absolutely clear that we do not want to bring the defense and security of Europe into part of the negotiations because we think it is absolutely vital,” Williamson said.

“So I very mush hope that the European Union commission will take the opportunity to see sense, re-calibrate its position and not play politics on something that is so vitally important which is European defense and security.”

(Reporting by David Marditste; writing by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

Nerve agent planted in luggage of Russian agent’s daughter: The Telegraph

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand behind a cordon placed around a payment machine covered by a tent in a supermarket car park near to where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned in Salisbury, Britain, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) – The military-grade nerve toxin that poisoned former Russian agent Sergei Skripal was planted in his daughter’s suitcase before she left Moscow, The Telegraph newspaper reported, citing unidentified sources.

Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found slumped unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the genteel southern English city of Salisbury on March 4. They have been in a critical condition in hospital ever since.

Yulia Skripal flew to London from Russia on March 3, according to counter-terrorism police.

British investigators are working on the theory that the toxin was impregnated in an item of clothing or cosmetics or in a gift that was opened in Skripal’s house in Salisbury, the Telegraph said, citing the unidentified sources.

Britain has said the toxin, which also poisoned a British police officer who attended the scene, was Novichok, a lethal nerve agent first developed by the Soviet military.

After the first known offensive use of such a weapon on European soil since World War Two, Britain has pinned the blame on Moscow and given 23 Russians who it said were spies working under diplomatic cover at the London embassy a week to leave.

Britain, the United States, Germany and France jointly called on Russia on Thursday to explain how the toxin came to be used on British soil. Russia has denied any involvement and has accused London of whipping up anti-Russian hysteria.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

France will strike Syria chemical arms sites if used to kill: Macron

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he addresses a news conference in Varanasi, India, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

PARIS (Reuters) – France is prepared to launch targeted strikes against any site in Syria used to deploy chemical attacks that result in the deaths of civilians, President Emmanuel Macron said.

Shortly before the United Nations was due to discuss Syria, Macron said Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, had not done enough to permit relief efforts into the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.

Asked about the Syrian conflict at a news conference in India, Macron said France would be ready to strike if it found “irrefutable evidence” chemical weapons had been used to kill.

“The day we have, in particular in tandem with our American partners, irrefutable proof that the red line was crossed — namely the chemical weapons were used to lethal effect — we will do what the Americans themselves did moreover a few months ago; we would put ourselves in position to proceed with targeted strikes,” Macron said.

The French leader has made the threat before but has so far made little headway influencing events in Syria.

“We are cross-matching our own information with that of our allies but to put it very clearly we have an independent capacity to identify targets and launch strikes where needed.”

Syria signed a Russian-brokered deal to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons to avert U.S. air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in 2013. Last year, the United States again accused Damascus of using nerve gas and launched air strikes.

Since then, Washington has repeatedly accused Damascus of using chlorine gas in attacks. Chlorine is far less deadly than nerve agents and possession of it is allowed for civilian purposes, but its use as a weapon is banned.

Damascus and Moscow have been carrying out a fierce bombing campaign and ground assault against the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave since mid-February, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a countrywide ceasefire.

“This is a debate we will have in the coming hours at the United Nations, where it will be shown that the concessions on the ground from Russia, but first and foremost the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies, are insufficient,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Peter Graff)

For survivors of past Syrian nerve gassing, new attack brings back horror and despair

Abu Malek, one of the survivors of a chemical attack in the Ghouta region of Damascus that took place in 2013, uses his crutches to walk along a street in the Ghouta town of Ain Tarma, Syria

BEIRUT/EASTERN GHOUTA, Syria (Reuters) – It’s the dead children that still haunt Abu Ghassan, who was blinded for more than a month and paralysed for weeks by a nerve gas attack four years ago in a Damascus suburb. He recovered; 37 members of his family were among the hundreds of dead.

Last week, when another gas attack killed at least 87 people hundreds of miles to the north, the memories rushed back, hard. When he learned of it, he wept “like a child”, the 50 year-old recalls in Ain Tarma, one of three towns hit by poison gas in 2013 in areas near Damascus collectively known as the Ghouta.

Last week’s attack in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun was the first time Western countries say the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad again used the banned nerve gas sarin since the attack four years ago in the Ghouta.

Damascus denies it was to blame for either attack, but the diplomatic effects of both were dramatic. Four years ago, the United States nearly bombed the Syrian government, only to pull back when Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal and submit to U.N. inspections. After last week’s attack, President Donald Trump fired U.S. cruise missiles at Syrian government targets for the first time.

Survivors of the Ghouta attack four years ago never lost the fear they could be gassed again at any moment, said Amer Zaydan, a 28-year-old school director from another part of eastern Ghouta. The new strike hammered it home.

“After the Khan Sheikhoun massacre, we’ve gone back to that first moment, as if we are the ones who went through it,” he said. “The people here are terrified.”

Since last week’s attack – which like those four years ago came just before dawn when the wind is the calmest and poison gas most effective – residents have activated a night watch, staying up to warn others in case of another attack.

Zaydan recalls seeing hundreds of dead people before falling unconscious himself as he tried to help victims. He was blinded for days. “It was like the end of days.”

“I don’t know what happened to the child I was holding at the time,” said Zaydan. Seven members of his family were killed. One of his cousins, presumed dead, was being prepared for burial when it was discovered he was still alive.

“We have not forgotten this thing. It cannot be forgotten, when you see hundreds of people dying, it’s a scene that cannot possibly be forgotten,” he said. “You walk through a district, you remember that here an entire family died, or here an entire district died.”


Abu Ghassan in Ain Tarma also lives with the constant fear of another strike.

He says he was saved only by his military training, covering his face with a wet shirt when he first sense the poison, while none of the friends he was with survived. Since then, he has always kept cloth and vinegar to hand in case of another attack.

Pieces of a rocket that bore the poison still litter the rubble-strewn floor of the apartment that it struck. Some parts were taken by U.N. inspectors, but the rest was kept in case it can one day be used in a war crimes tribunal, Abu Ghassan said.

Residents have returned to live in most of the apartment block. Abu Ghassan remembers returning home to the sight of dead birds and chickens in the street by the house.

Today, Syrian government forces are in a much stronger position than they were four years ago, and the opposition-held areas are even more vulnerable. The western Ghouta, where one of the strikes hit, is now under government control.

The eastern Ghouta, where two towns were hit, has been effectively under siege for years and more vulnerable than ever, say doctors, who have never been able to replenish supplies of atropine, the medicine used to treat nerve gas patients.

“After the massacre in Khan Sheikhoun, it’s like the Ghouta is on high alert. We feel as though we are next,” said Abu Ibrahim Baker, a surgeon who treated victims of the attack four years ago at two hospitals.

“If God forbid a massacre happens like the 2013 one, there will be three or four times the deaths, because we no longer have as much atropine or capacities to resist at all.”

Hammam Daoud, a doctor who was in western Ghouta during the 2013 attack, said he was immediately struck on seeing the images last week of bodies gone limp and patients foaming at the mouth.

“The pictures we saw from Khan Sheikhoun were similar to what we saw. The pictures of the victims, the symptoms were almost identical,” said Daoud, speaking from Turkey, where he moved a few months ago as part of a negotiated withdrawal that gave Assad’s opponents safe passage out of the area.

“It is hard to talk about, it was greater than anything you expect. Medically, the thoracic symptoms did not cease, no one was 100 percent better, and we were unable to treat them well, because we had no tools,” he said in a phone interview.

Seeing footage from Khan Sheikhoun, he said he felt “the same level of despair”.

“This despair will not leave us. The helplessness you feel because of these cases, it is unmatched,” he said. “I lost hope in everything.”

(Reporting by Tom Perry, Ellen Francis in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and a reporter in the Eastern Ghouta; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)