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Czechs urge allies to expel Russian intelligence officers in act of solidarity

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds an EU flag next to police officers during a protest over the Russian intelligence services alleged involvement in an ammunition depot explosion in Vrbetice area in 2014, outside the Russian Embassy in Prague

PRAGUE (Reuters) -The Czech Republic will ask European Union and NATO allies to take action in solidarity with Prague in its row with Moscow, including expelling Russian intelligence officers from their countries, acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamacek said on Tuesday.

The Central European country on Saturday evicted 18 Russian Embassy staff, whom it identified as intelligence officers, over suspicions that Russian secret services were behind explosions at a privately operated arms depot in 2014.

Moscow has denied any of its agents were involved in the blast, which killed two people, branding the Czech stance a provocation, and expelled 20 Czech diplomats and other staff in retaliation.

The dispute is the biggest between Prague and Moscow since the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1989, and comes amid growing tensions between Russia and the West.

“We will call for collective action by European Union and NATO countries that will be aimed at a solidarity expulsion of identified members of Russian intelligence services from EU and NATO member states,” Hamacek told a televised news conference.

Hamacek said he had summoned Russia’s ambassador in Prague for Wednesday, where he would inform him of a further Czech reaction. He declined to say what the reaction would be.

The Foreign Ministry said Prague also asked for a special meeting of NATO’s North Atlantic Council this week.

“(The meeting) will allow for talks of possible further allied steps,” the ministry said on Twitter, adding the country would be sending a high-level representative.

Czech officials have pointed out Russia had more diplomats in Prague than the Czech Republic had in Moscow, which had made the Russian expulsions more damaging to embassy operations.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that the Czech Republic’s allegations of Russian involvement in the 2014 explosion were unfounded and formed part of a wider series of attempts to contain Russia.

Prague previously said it had evidence backing the suspicion that the warehouse blast was caused by the same agents of Russia’s GRU military intelligence blamed for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018. Moscow also denies involvement in the Skripal case.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Cooney)

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