Russian Federation escalates row in spy case

Alexandr Sherbak  TASS

Russia on Friday expelled 59 diplomats from 23 countries in the aftermath of poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal at his home in Salisbury in the United Kingdom earlier this month.

Moscow on Thursday said that it will expel 60 United States diplomats and close the American consulates in St. Petersburg.

"Remember, this is the first time that a weapons-grade nerve agent, Novichok, has been used outside of war on allied soil".

The coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats from over a dozen Western countries earlier this week is a new low in the New Cold War, but some fear that the bottom has yet to be reached. The statement did not mention North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which is expelling seven Russians.

The UK government alleges that the nerve agent used in the deadly attack, Novichok, was developed in Russian Federation.

The UK hospital treating the Skripals said Thursday that Yulia Skripal, 33, was "improving rapidly" and that she was no longer in a critical condition.

Mr Lavrov emphasised that the expulsions followed "brutal pressure" from the USA and Britain, which forced their allies to "follow the anti-Russian course".

"We have suggested that the United States authorities, which have encouraged and inflated a campaign of slander against our country, should come to their senses and cease thoughtless actions that destroy bilateral relations", the ministry said.

The US, EU and other American allies punished Putin after blaming the Kremlin for the March 4 nerve agent attack in Britain on a former Russian spy-turned-double agent and his daughter.

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US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert says that "Russia should not be acting like a victim".

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

In a tweet, the embassy called night called the alleged search "another blatant provocation by the British authorities" over the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in England.

Germany and Poland each said Russian Federation was expelling four of their diplomats.

An Associated Press reporter on Friday saw US consulate staff carrying boxes from the building in St. Petersburg and loading them into a van.

Peter Tesch, who headed up the Moscow embassy for three years, was called to the government building on Friday along with diplomats from several European and Western nations.

Britain was also told to cut its diplomatic contingent in Russia to the same size as the Russian mission in Britain.

British diplomats left Moscow a week ago, but ambassador Laurie Bristow was summoned back to the foreign ministry for additional punishment. "She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day", Dr. Christine Blanshard, medical director for Salisbury District Hospital, said in a statement.

Despite the tensions with Washington, Russia is eager for a proposed meeting of President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump.

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