May expels 23 Russian diplomats in response to spy poisoning

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Russia’s ambassador to Britain says Moscow will reciprocate by expelling UK diplomats

Peter Walker and Jessica Elgot

The UK is to expel 23 Russian diplomats, consider new laws to combat spying and look at sanctions as part of a sweeping response to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, Theresa May has told parliament.

In a statement to MPs after the expiry of a midnight deadline to Russia to explain how one of its nerve agents was used in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the prime minister told parliament the expulsions were the biggest such move for 30 years.

The UK would also cut off all top-level ties with Russia, including revoking an invitation to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to visit the UK, and would not send ministers or royals to the football World Cup this summer, May said.

In response, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, confirmed that British diplomats would be expelled from Moscow. Asked in an interview with Sky News about what would happen after May’s statement, he said: “There will be expulsions. As you understand in diplomatic practice, there will be answers from the Russian side.”

When he was asked to clarify if this meant British diplomats being expelled from Moscow, he replied: “In diplomacy, there is always reciprocity.”

He also said that what the UK government was doing was “absolutely unacceptable” and that it should refer the matter to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

May’s statement to the Commons followed an announcement by the Foreign Office that the UK had called for an urgent meeting of the UN security council to update council members on the investigation. EU leaders will also discuss the incident at a summit next week, said the European council president, Donald Tusk.

May said Russia had treated a UK request to explain how the military-grade nerve agent novichok was used in the attack with “sarcasm, contempt and defiance”, and had offered no credible explanation for it.

“Their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events,” May told MPs. She said: “There is no alternative conclusion other than the Russian state was responsible for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter.”

It was, she said, “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”.

In response, May said 23 Russian diplomats identified as being involved in intelligence had a week to leave the UK. After the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, four diplomats were expelled in 2007.

The government will also look into new legislation to stop suspected intelligence operatives at the UK border, examine fresh sanctions, and efforts for further checks on private jets.

May said the UK would use “a range of tools from across the full breadth of our national security apparatus in order to counter the threats of hostile state activity”.

She said: “We will not tolerate the threat to life of British people and others on British soil from the Russian government. Nor will we tolerate such a flagrant breach of Russia’s international obligations.”

The PM continued: “We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents.

“And, led by the National Crime Agency, we will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people – or their money – in our country.”

On new anti-spying powers, May said the government would urgently develop proposals for new legislative powers to “harden our defences against all forms of hostile state activity”.

She said: “This will include the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border. This power is currently only permitted in relation to those suspected of terrorism.”

Yakovenko, was called to the Foreign Office shortly before the statement to hear the measures. Afterwards he told Sky News: “I said everything what is done today by the British government is absolutely unacceptable and we consider this provocation.”

May told MPs it was important to distinguish between the actions of the Russian state and the many Russians who “have made this country their home, abide by our laws and make a contribution which we continue to welcome”.

She said: “We have no disagreement with the people of Russia. Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic President Putin has chosen to act in this way.”

Jeremy Corbyn responded by calling the Salisbury incident “an appalling act of violence”. He said: “Nerve agents are abominable if used in any war. It is utterly reckless to use them in a civilian environment.”

The Labour leader raised the possibility that the nerve agent could have been used by someone else other than Russia, bringing shouts from Conservative MPs.

“The prime minister said on Monday, either this was a direct act by the Russian state or the Russian government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get in the hands of others,” he said.

Saying any response must be based on clear evidence, Corbyn asked about the role of the OPCW, based in The Hague.

He said: “If the government believes that it is still a possibility that Russia negligently lost control of a military-grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW with our allies?”

Corbyn then asked what response had been made for Russia’s request for a sample of the nerve agent for it to test.

In response to Corbyn, May said the Russians had already been given the chance to explain where the nerve agent had come from and that the government had sought consensus.

“It was clear from remarks that were made by backbenchers across the whole of the house on Monday that there is a consensus across the backbenches of this house. I am only sorry that the consensus does not go as far as the right honourable gentleman, who could have taken the opportunity as the UK government has done to condemn the culpability of the Russian state.”

Several backbench Labour MPs backed May’s stance. Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, was met with loud cheers when she said the UK government’s conclusion about Russian state involvement “should be met with unequivocal condemnation”. May thanked Cooper, in a pointed comment towards Corbyn, saying: “I know it is representative of many of her friends on the backbenches opposite.”

 

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