The Czech government on April 26 reiterated that evidence linking Russian GRU military intelligence to arms depot explosions in 2014 is “very convincing,” after President Milos Zeman cast doubt over allegations that have sparked a deep diplomatic rift with Russia.
Zeman, who is known for being sympathetic toward Moscow, said during a televised address to the nation on April 25 that there are two theories about what caused the explosion of a munitions depot near the eastern Czech town of Vrbetice in 2014.
He said that one version of events is that Russian intelligence was involved in the deadly explosion.
The other version, he said, was that the blast was caused by inexpert handling of ammunition.
"I take both lines [of investigation] seriously and I wish that they are thoroughly investigated," Zeman said.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis on April 17 announced that investigators from the Czech intelligence and security services had provided "unequivocal evidence" that there was "reasonable suspicion regarding a role of members of Russian military intelligence GRU's unit 29155 in the explosion of the munition depot in Vrbetice in 2014."
In response, the Czech government announced the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats it considered to be spies, setting off a string of tit-for-tat moves between Prague and Moscow.
Citing the report by the Czech Security Information Service, Zeman said that there was "neither proof nor evidence" that the two Russian GRU agents being sought regarding possible involvement in the explosion were at the arms depot.
"I hope that we will determine the truth and find out whether this suspicion [of Russian intelligence involvement] is justified," Zeman said. "If that is the case -- although I support fair relations with all important countries -- the Russian Federation would have to pay the price of this presumed terrorist act."
In response to Zeman’s comments, Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hamacek, who is also the interior minister, said information from intelligence, police, and investigators on the 2014 blasts was strong.
"As the Czech Republic we reacted very hard, so it is apparent the evidence was very convincing," Hamacek said at a April 26 news conference.
"As far as I know, only one line of investigation exists on the Vrbetice case and that is the one connected with movements of those members of the [GRU] unit 29155," Hamacek said.
"The president's speech was such that everybody found something in it to please them including the Russian Federation, unfortunately," he added.
Zeman, whose powers as president are largely ceremonial, has often expressed pro-Russian views and is seen as being friendly toward Moscow.
The explosion on October 16, 2014 in Vrbetice set off 50 tons of stored ammunition, killing two people. Two months later, another blast of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the incident, which has triggered anti-Russia protests in the Czech Republic.
More protests are planned for April 29 in Prague and other cities, this time also taking aim at Zeman for his position on Russia.
Czech media has reported that the ammunition and weaponry destroyed in the first Vrbetice blast was intended for Ukrainian forces fighting against Russia-backed separatist troops in eastern Ukraine.
The two Russian intelligence officers sought in relation to the explosion are the same GRU officers accused of a nerve-agent poisoning in England in 2018 that targeted former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.