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Moscow, Prague To Keep Equal Number Of Staff At Each Other's Embassies, Says Czech Foreign Minister


Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek
Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek

PRAGUE -- Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek says the number of people that will be allowed by Prague and Moscow at their respective embassies will be 32, as tensions between the two continue to simmer over Russia's alleged role in a deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech arms depot.

"[The Czech Republic's and Russia's embassies] should have seven diplomats and 25 administrative and technical staff each," Kulhanek said in an interview with Czech daily Blesk.

The Czechs announced a day earlier that Russia won't be allowed to have more diplomats in Prague than the Czechs currently have at their embassy in Moscow.

The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- all of whom are NATO members and former Soviet republics -- said on April 23 they were expelling a total of four Russian diplomats in solidarity with the Czechs.

The dispute flared on April 17 when Prague expelled 18 Russian staff, whom it identified as spies. Russia responded the next day by expelling 20 Czech staff from Prague's embassy in Moscow.

Kulhanek said in the interview that Russia has been given until the end of May to cut the number of its embassy’s personnel by 63 people. He also said that the changes will not affect the number of diplomats and technical personnel at Russian consulates in Brno and Karlovy Vary, as well as at Czech consulates in several Russian cities.

The tit-for-tat moves over the Czech allegations have triggered Prague's biggest dispute with Russia since the 1989 end of communist rule, putting the small Central European NATO member at the center of rising tensions between Moscow and the West.

The Czechs have alleged that two Russian intelligence officers accused of a nerve-agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were also behind an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 that killed two people.

Russia has denied the Czech accusations.

Lithuania's Foreign Ministry said it was expelling two members of Russia’s Embassy staff to show solidarity over the "unprecedented and dangerous incident" in the Czech Republic, while Latvia and Estonia said one diplomat would be sent home from each of their countries.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova promised a response from Moscow, saying "the authorities of these countries can rest assured of our response. Their diplomats can already start mulling who exactly will have to pack up," according to the state news agency TASS.

The Czechs pushed Moscow to allow the expelled Czech diplomats to be able return to work by noon on April 22, but the deadline was ignored. Russian officials had called the ultimatum "unacceptable."

"Our offer to Russia to reverse the expulsion of our people was made in good faith. But Russia did not use the opportunity we offered. As the head of diplomacy, I am not at all pleased with the state of Czech-Russian relations," Kulhanek told Blesk, adding that Russia's expulsion of personnel had left the Czech Embassy in Moscow "paralyzed."

Kulhanek noted that Russian Embassy staff members not included in the original 18 expelled could "theoretically" return to the Czech Republic in the future since they have not been given the status of persona non grata.

With reporting by, Reuters, and TASS
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