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Russia Says Britain Must Cut More Than 50 Diplomats Amid Tit-For-Tat Expulsions


Boxes are packed and ready for shipping at the closed Russian Consulate in Seattle, Washington.

Russia says Britain must trim its diplomatic personnel in Russia by more than 50 people amid a diplomatic tit-for-tat ignited by the poisoning of an ex-spy on British soil.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told news agencies of the demand on March 31, a day after Russia served expulsion notices to a slew of staff in Western embassies in an escalating standoff over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, earlier this month.

The expulsions come in response to the decision by Britain, the United States, and European allies to kick out numerous Russian diplomats over British allegations that Moscow is responsible for a nerve-agent attack on the Skripals.

Zakharova said on March 31 that Britain would have to cut "a little over 50" of its diplomats stationed in Russia, Reuters reported.

"We asked for parity. The Brits have 50 diplomats more than the Russians," Zakharova was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Russian officials also have asked for access to Skripal's daughter, insisting they have a legal right to see the 33-year-old who lives in Moscow and was visiting her father when they were attacked with a nerve agent on March 4.

The British Foreign Office said on March 31 that the government was considering the request "in line with our obligations under international and domestic law."

The Russian Foreign Ministry on March 30 summoned the heads of missions from 23 countries -- mostly European Union members and U.K. allies -- and said it was expelling about 60 of their diplomats, while reserving the right to take similar action against four other nations.

A day earlier, Moscow ordered the expulsion of 60 U.S. diplomats and the closing of the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg in its first move to retaliate against the expulsion this week of more than 150 Russian diplomats by Western states.

The expulsions have been the largest since the Cold War.

Russia had already retaliated in kind against Britain for ejecting 23 diplomats over what London claims was the first use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe since World War II against the Skripals.

But on March 30, British Ambassador to Moscow Laurie Bristow was summoned again and told London had just one month to cut its diplomatic contingent in Russia to the same size as the Russian mission in Britain.

The Foreign Ministry, which denies Russia was involved in the poisonings and has suggested that Britain or the United States might be to blame, said it handed Bristow a protest over the "provocative and unsubstantiated actions by Britain."

Russia's embassy to Paris submitted a note to France's Foreign Ministry on March 31 containing a list of 10 questions over the Skripal case "fabricated against Russia," a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.

A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office did not say how many British diplomats would be affected by the latest staff cuts. But she said Russia's latest move "doesn't change the facts of the matter -- the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable."

Russia's other summonses on March 30 targeted the ambassadors from Australia, Albania, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Croatia, Ukraine, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and the Czech Republic.

All were seen arriving in their official cars at the Foreign Ministry building in Moscow.

The diplomats were handed "protest notes" and were told Russia was expelling diplomats from their missions in "corresponding number" to the number of Russian diplomats their countries had expelled earlier in the week, the ministry said.

The move means that France, Germany, Poland, and Canada all will have to cut four diplomatic staff in Russia, while Ukraine must cut 13. The other countries are losing from one to three of their diplomatic slots.

The Russian ministry said it was reserving the right to expel diplomats from four other countries -- Belgium, Hungary, Georgia, and Montenegro -- which were the last to announce that they were expelling Russian diplomats over the Skripal affair.

One country that said it was not joining in the diplomatic 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 recalling its ambassador from Moscow for consultations as it awaits more evidence on the attack.

Bulgaria is heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies and tourism revenue.

Russia, the United States, Germany, and many of the other countries involved in the diplomatic rift insisted that they want to maintain good relations despite escalating tensions.

"Russia did not unleash any diplomatic war," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on March 30. "Russia never initiated any exchange of sanctions."

After being summoned in Moscow German Ambassador Rudiger von Fritsch said Russia still had questions to answer about the poisoning of Skripal, but Berlin remained open to dialogue with Moscow.

A U.S. State Department official said on March 30 that in expelling 60 Russian diplomatic staff from the United States, Washington was not putting any cap on the overall number of Russian personnel, so Moscow can apply to accredit new diplomats to replace those leaving.

Russia's ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters on March 31 that all of the 60 Russian diplomats declared persona non grata by the United States were flying home that day with their families.

Given the flexibility, Russian diplomats said they were not sending any staff home from the consulate in Seattle that the United States ordered closed on March 30, but rather were adding them to Russian missions elsewhere in the country.

"Today dozens of our colleagues -- Russian diplomats -- are leaving the U.S. They are not U.S. enemies. The U.S. authorities have expelled American friends. This choice is unfortunate," Antonov said in a video address uploaded on the embassy’s Twitter page.

Russia's embassy to the United Kingdom also put out a statement, warning that Russians traveling to the country should be ready for "heightened attention from British law enforcement bodies and security services."

"In particular, possible [situations] include unforeseen stops and arrests of citizens under made-up pretexts for the purpose of thorough questionings and searches on entering and leaving the country," the embassy said.

Both Skripals have been hospitalized since their poisonings in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Sergei Skripal, 66, remains in critical condition, but his daughter Yulia, 33, has been "improving rapidly" and is no longer in critical condition, British health officials 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 2010 as part of a spy swap.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and dpa
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