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Prague Mayor Under Police Protection Amid Report Of Possible Russian Poisoning Plot

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Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib

PRAGUE -- The mayor of Prague has confirmed police are guarding him around the clock after a Czech news magazine reported that he and another Prague official were likely targets of a Russian poisoning plot.

Mayor Zdenek Hrib told Russia's Ekho Moskvy on April 27 that police put him under protection weeks ago after identifying a threat directed at him. He did not offer further details.

His comments come after the Czech weekly Respekt reported Hrib and Prague 6 district Mayor Ondrej Kolar had been singled out by Russian intelligence for poisoning with a deadly toxin.

Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek reportedly warned Russia's ambassador of consequences if anything happens to the Czech politicians, including another Prague district mayor who also reportedly faced threats for actions that have irritated Moscow.

Respekt quotes unnamed security sources as saying a suspected Russian intelligence officer arrived in the Czech capital three weeks ago on a diplomatic passport and with a suitcase containing ricin.

Hrib stirred ire in Moscow for backing a decision to rename the square in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague after the slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov.

Kolar was criticized by the Kremlin for the recent removal in that district of a statue of a Soviet-era marshal.

The incidents have raised tensions between Prague and Moscow and fueled speculation that Russia may have been behind a recent wave of cyberattacks in the Czech Republic on the Health Ministry, the Interior Ministry, hospitals, and Prague's international airport.

There has been no official comment from Czech officials about the alleged poisoning plot.

A Czech police spokesman, Jiri Danek, told RFE/RL that the Prague police department was not handling the case.

A spokesman for the National Center for Combating Organized Crime, NCOZ, refused to comment.

"Our division will not confirm information that has been publicized in the media," NCOZ spokesman Jaroslav Ibehej told RFE/RL in an e-mail response.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, called the accusations “a fake.”

“We don’t know anything at all about this investigation,” he said on April 27. “We don’t know who did the investigation. It looks like yet another canard.”

However, Foreign Minister Petricek is reported to have called in Russian Ambassador to the Czech Republic Aleksandr Zmeyevsky to discuss the matter, the Czech news site Denik N reported, warning him of repercussions if anything happens to the Czech officials, including Pavel Novotny, mayor of an outlying district of Prague.

In the interview with Ekho Moskvy, Hrib said "it is very important for me to stand by my belief although it means a risk for my life."

“The police protection was simply given to me by the Czech police," he added. "By their decision, I am not able to comment on the reasons.”

A spokesman for Hrib, Vit Hofman, told RFE/RL it was unclear how long the police protection would last.

'I'm Not Afraid For My Life'

Hofman also said Hrib had recently filed a police complaint after concerns he was being "stalked," with unidentified individuals approaching his home.

Hofman said it was unclear whether the stalking incidents were related to the alleged poisoning plot.

Kolar later confirmed to Czech media that he was also under police protection, although he declined to disclose details.

"I'm not afraid for my life. I'm afraid for this republic which, thanks to a completely incompetent government, is being dragged through the dust and is allowing a foreign state to do whatever it pleases," Kolar told idnes.cz.

In November 2019, Novotny proposed erecting a monument to a controversial World War II military division made up of Soviet defectors, which was called the Russian Liberation Army and commanded by Soviet General Andrei Vlasov. The division fought alongside the Nazis but turned against them in the final days of the war and played a role in defeating them in Prague.

Moscow considers Vlasov and all who served in the Russian Liberation Army deserters and traitors.

According to Denik N, all three -- Hrib, Kolar, and Novotny -- are now under police protection.

According to the Respekt report issued on April 26, the suspected Russian intelligence agent was picked up by a diplomatic vehicle and taken to the Russian Embassy compound in Prague when he arrived in the Czech capital.

It also said the individual entered the Czech Republic at a time when other suspected Russian intelligence officers were being dispatched to other unnamed European destinations. It did not disclose further details of that claim.

Kolar was attacked 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 demolition 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.

Soviet Marshal's Statue Reveals Monumental Rift In Czech Society
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WATCH: Soviet Marshal's Statue Reveals Monumental Rift In Czech Society

Two months ago, Prague officials dedicated the leafy square in front of the embassy complex to former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov, who was fatally shot in February 2015, meters away from the Kremlin walls. He was an outspoken critic of Putin.

The Russian Embassy in Prague last week said it would not use its address on the square, but would instead use an address on an adjacent street for correspondence.

As possible payback, Czech officials suspect Russian hackers may have been behind a recent wave of cyberattacks.

Earlier this month, Czech officials said information-technology (IT) systems at Prague's international airport, several hospitals, and the Health Ministry were targeted in the attacks, which sparked outrage in Prague -- and Washington, as well.

On April 22, the Czech Interior Ministry said its IT systems were also targeted in the attacks, all of which were thwarted and were preceded by warnings from the country's cybersecurity watchdog of expected cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on April 17 expressed concern over the incidents, saying anybody engaged in such activity should "expect consequences." He said the attacks, particularly those targeting medical facilities, were especially worrying, given the current global coronavirus crisis.

The Russian Embassy in Prague on April 17 denied any Russian link to the attacks, although Czech officials have made no such accusations.

The Czech cybersecurity watchdog NUKIB has said the attacks were thought to be the work of a "serious and advanced adversary," although it did not name any countries.

Czech Internet security experts said some of the malware used in the attacks was in Russian. Some IT addresses led to China as well.

Czech security officials have deemed both Russia and China as posing the biggest cyberthreat to the Czech Republic.

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