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Moscow Summons Ambassadors From Countries That Expelled Russian Diplomats


British Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry building in Moscow on March 30.

Russia has served expulsion notices to a slew of staff in Western embassies in a diplomatic tit-for-tat ignited by the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on March 30 that Moscow was forced to retaliate after the expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomats by two dozen countries in response to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also announced on March 30 that Britain had one month to cut its diplomatic contingent in Moscow to same size as Russia's mission in Britain.

That number wasn't immediately clear.

The ministry said it summoned the British ambassador on March 30 to hand him a protest over the "provocative and unsubstantiated actions" by Britain, which has blamed Russia for the poisoning with a nerve agent, triggering the diplomatic dispute between Moscow and Western countries.

The Russian Foreign Ministry later announced four diplomats from Poland would have to leave Russia in response to Warsaw's decision to expel four Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain.

The Czech Republic, Italy, Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland also said diplomats from their missions in Russia were given expulsion notices.

British officials said the notice to reduce their diplomatic presence in Russia was "regrettable," but expected.

A Foreign Office statement released on March 30 noted Russia's moves didn't "change the facts" of the attack and that there was no alternative to the conclusion that Russia was to blame for the attempted "assassination of two people on British soil" in a "flagrant breach of international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention."

Russia on March 29 also ordered the closure of the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg.

AP reported that staff were carrying boxes from the consulate building in Russia's second biggest city and loading them into a van on March 30.

On March 29, Lavrov said U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman had been summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry to be briefed "on the content of the retaliatory measures toward the United States."

"They include the expulsion of the same number of diplomats and our decision to withdraw permission for the work of the consulate-general in St. Petersburg," Lavrov said.

The United States earlier expelled 60 Russian diplomats and ordered the shutdown of the Russian Consulate in Seattle.

The Foreign Ministry said the consulate must suspend operations within two days and that 58 U.S. diplomats in Moscow and two in Yekaterinburg will be required to leave by April 5.

"As for the other countries, everything will also be symmetrical in terms of the number of people from their diplomatic missions who will be leaving Russia," Lavrov added.

The U.S. State Department said it was not surprised by Russia's expulsions but added that there was "no justification" for the moves.

Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that "Russia should not be acting like a victim" and called its actions "regrettable."

"It's clear from the list provided to us that the Russian Federation is not interested in a dialogue on issues that matter to our two countries. We reserve the right to respond," Nauert said.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the tit-for-tat expulsions marked "a further deterioration in the United States-Russian relationship."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responded to the latest actions by saying Cold War-style precautions are "necessary again" and that he was "very concerned" by the situation.

He told reporters the atmosphere was "similar to a large extent to what we lived through during the Cold War" and called for renewed "mechanisms of communication and control to avoid escalation and make sure things would not get out of control where tensions would rise."

The Skripals were found slumped on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Moscow has denied it was behind the attack and has called on Britain to prove it did not itself poison Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter.

Both Skripals had been hospitalized since the attack in critical condition, but British health officials said on March 29 that Yulia Skripal was "improving rapidly" and was no longer in critical condition.

Her father remained in critical but stable condition, after earlier reports said chances of recovery for both appeared slim.

"I'm pleased to be able to report an improvement in the condition of Yulia Skripal. She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day," Christine Blanshard, medical director for Salisbury District Hospital, said on March 29.

Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer imprisoned by Moscow after being convicted of passing on information about Russian agents in various European countries, came to Britain in a 2010 spy swap.

One country that said it was not joining in the spat is Bulgaria, current holder of the EU presidency.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said on March 30 that his government decided to limit its actions to full support of Britain and by recalling its ambassador from Moscow for consultations as it awaits more evidence on the attack.

Bulgaria, a former close ally of Moscow, is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies and on sizeable tourism revenue.

Nonetheless, the Western expulsions are the latest in a long-running series of diplomatic moves between the United States and Russia.

The administration of President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two recreation facilities in the United States in late 2016 in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the U.S. presidential campaign.

After the U.S. Congress passed a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia and making it harder for President Donald Trump to ease or lift existing measures, theKremlin in July 2017 ordered Washington to reduce its staff at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and consulates to 455 people, a cut of about 755, although not all were diplomats.

The United States responded by ordering Russia to vacate its consulate in San Francisco and trade annexes in Washington and New York, steps intended to produce parity in the sizes of the Russian and U.S. diplomatic missions.

With reporting by Interfax, AFP, Reuters, AP, and dpa
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