The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that it would expel the British diplomats in retaliation for London’s “provocative” measures over the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter allegedly with a nerve agent in Salisbury in southern England.
“Twenty three diplomatic staff at the British Embassy in Moscow are declared persona non grata and to be expelled within a week,” the ministry said in a statement after summoning British Ambassador Laurie Bristow.
The statement said the move was a response to Britain’s “baseless accusations over the incident in Salisbury on March 4.”
The ministry also said it was halting the activities of the British Council, Britain’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities, across the country.
“Due to the unregulated status of the British Council in Russia, its activity is halted,” the ministry said, also warning Britain that, “If further unfriendly actions are taken toward Russia, the Russian side retains the right to take other answering measures.”
The move was prompted after British Prime Minster Theresa May announced on Wednesday plans to expel 23 Russian diplomats in the wake of the alleged attack.
May also announced a range of economic and diplomatic measures, including a decision to cancel all high-level bilateral contacts with Moscow.
On March 7, British authorities announced that former spy Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, had been hospitalized after being found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in Salisbury.
British police attributed the critical illness of the two to a nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union, and the British premier accused Moscow of being responsible.
Russia has denied any involvement, insisting that it was ready to assist in the investigation provided that Moscow would be granted access to the case materials, including samples of the substance used in Skripal’s poisoning. London has rejected the request.
Skripal was found guilty by a Russian tribunal of selling classified information to the UK’s spy agency MI6 and was imprisoned in Russia in 2006. He was exchanged in a spy swap in 2010.
Britain’s National counter-terrorism police have taken over the investigation on the alleged attack and are treating the case as attempted murder.