PRAGUE -- A Prague district mayor says he is under police protection after authorities informed him that he and two other Prague officials, including the city's mayor, were the targets of a Russian agent sent to the Czech capital to "liquidate" them.
Ondrej Kolar's comments on April 28 came after Respekt, a Czech investigative weekly, published a report quoting unnamed security sources as saying that a suspected Russian intelligence officer had traveled recently to Prague with a suitcase containing the deadly toxin ricin as part of an alleged poisoning plot.
In his first public comments on the case, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the Czech Republic was a "sovereign state" that would not tolerate "any world power" trying to interfere in its internal affairs.
"It's not acceptable -- if it's true -- for a foreign state to take action against our citizens here," Babis said in Prague on April 28.
The three alleged targets have all taken or supported actions that have angered the Kremlin, including the renaming of the square in front of the Russian Embassy after a slain former Kremlin critic and the removal of a statue of a Soviet-era general. As possible payback, Moscow is suspected of having a role in a recent wave of cyberattacks in the Czech Republic.
Moscow, suspected in the 2018 poisoning in Britain of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent, has dismissed the alleged poisoning plot against the three Czechs as part of a "disinformation campaign" aimed at discrediting Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry pushed back on April 29, threatening "serious consequences" to Czech-Russian relations for what it described as "provocation bordering on the sick ravings" by some in the Czech Republic.
"We assume that Prague should fully realize how serious the consequences of such methods and manipulations could be," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Kolar, who has said he is in hiding, told Prima TV on April 28 that he was restricted from disclosing details about the case, which also involves Zdenek Hrib, the mayor of Prague, and Pavel Novotny, another Prague district mayor.
"I can really only tell you that I have police protection. It was ordered on the basis of certain facts and those facts are that there is a Russian here who was given an assignment to liquidate me. Not only me, but Mr. Hrib and Mr. Novotny."
All three have now confirmed they have been given around-the-clock police protection.
Speaking to RFE/RL on April 29, Hrib said the police protection started around Easter and he was unsure how long it would last. "Unfortunately, I cannot elaborate on how this [protection] is being carried out, nor on the reasons for which it was deployed," he said.
In its April 26 report, Respekt quoted security sources as saying a suspected Russian intelligence agent carrying a suitcase of ricin flew into Prague on a diplomatic passport some 3 1/2 weeks ago. He was allegedly taken away in a Russian vehicle to the Russian Embassy compound, a suspected hive of Russian intelligence activity located in the district of which Kolar is mayor.
Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek is reported to have warned Aleksandr Zmeyevsky, Russia's ambassador in the Czech Republic, of repercussions if anything happens to the three Czech officials.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on April 27 that the Respekt report "looked like a canard."
The Russian Embassy in Prague the same day rejected the report as "outrageous and false slander" that was part of "ongoing, unsubstantiated attacks on Russia and its embassy in Prague."
Kolar was criticized by the Kremlin after his district on April 3 removed the statue of Marshal Ivan Konev, who led the Red Army forces during World War II that drove Nazi troops from most of Czechoslovakia. Moscow called the controversial statue's removal an insult and an attempt to rewrite history.
Relations between Prague and Moscow also soured over a Czech decision to rename the square where the Russian Embassy is located, a decision backed by Hrib.
Two months ago, Prague officials dedicated the leafy square in front of the embassy complex to former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was fatally shot in February 2015 just meters away from the Kremlin walls.
In an interview with Ekho Moskvy earlier this week, Hrib said, "It is very important for me to stand by my beliefs, even if it means risking my life."
Novotny irritated the Kremlin after proposing to erect a monument to a controversial World War II military division called the Vlasov Army made up of Soviet defectors that fought alongside the Nazis but turned against them in the final days of the war and helped liberate Prague.
Novotny told RFE/RL on April 28 that he was under police protection but also said he was under restrictions when speaking about the case.
Asked whether he found the ricin poisoning plot credible, Novotny didn't hesitate.
"Are [the Russians] capable of something like that?" he asked. "Definitely."