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Russia Boots 23 UK Diplomats           03/17 11:04

   MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia on Saturday announced it is expelling 23 British 
diplomats and threatened further measures in retaliation in a growing 
diplomatic dispute over a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain.

   Britain's government said the move was expected, and that it doesn't change 
the British conviction that Russia was behind the poisoning of ex-agent Sergei 
Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury. Prime Minister 
Theresa May said Britain will consider next steps in the coming days alongside 
its allies.

   The Russian Foreign Ministry ordered the 23 diplomats to leave within a 
week. It also said in a statement that it is ordering the closure of the 
British Council, a government-backed organization for cultural and scientific 
cooperation, and that it is ending an agreement to reopen the British consulate 
in St. Petersburg.

   The announcement followed on the heels of Britain's order this week for 23 
Russian diplomats to leave the U.K. because Russia was not cooperating in the 
case of the Skripals, both found March 4 poisoned by a nerve agent that British 
officials say was developed in Russia. The Skripals remain in critical 

   Britain's foreign secretary accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of 
personally ordering the poisoning of the Skripals. Putin's spokesman denounced 
the claim.

   The Russian statement said the government could take further measures if 
Britain takes any more "unfriendly" moves toward Russia. British Ambassador 
Laurie Bristow was called to the Foreign Ministry Saturday to be informed of 
the moves.

   "We will always do what is necessary to defend ourselves, our allies and our 
values against an attack of this sort, which is an attack not only on the 
United Kingdom, but upon the international rules-based system on which all 
countries, including Russia, depend for their safety and security," Bristow 
told reporters after being informed of the expulsions.

   "This crisis has arisen as a result of an appalling attack in the United 
Kingdom, the attempted murder of two people, using a chemical weapon developed 
in Russia and not declared by Russia at the Organization for the Prohibition of 
Chemical Weapons, as Russia was and is obliged to do under the Chemical Weapons 
Convention," he added.

   Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Saturday denied that 
Russia or the Soviet Union had ever developed the nerve agent Novichok that 
Britain said was used to poison the Skripals.

   A Russian scientist disclosed details of the secret program in the 1990s, 
and later published the formula for Novichok. But Russia maintains it has never 
made them.

   Speaking on Russia-24 television, Zakharova said Britain's angry reaction is 
connected to the war in Syria. She said Britain is taking a tough line because 
of frustration at recent advances of Russian-backed Syrian government forces 
against Western-backed rebels.

   Russia argues that it has turned the tide of the international fight against 
Islamic State extremists by lending military backing to Syria's government. 
With Russian help, Syrian forces have stepped up their offensive on rebel-held 
areas in recent days, leaving many dead.

   The British National Security Council will meet early next week to consider 
the next steps after Saturday's expulsion announcement.

   The Foreign Office says "Russia's response 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 

   The British Council said in a statement it is "profoundly disappointed" at 
its pending closure. The organization has been operating in Russia ever since 
the fall of the Soviet Union.

   "It is our view that when political or diplomatic relations become 
difficult, cultural relations and educational opportunities are vital to 
maintain on-going dialogue between people and institutions," it said.

   British police appealed Saturday for witnesses who can help investigators 
reconstruct the Skripals'  movements in the crucial hours before they were 
found unconscious.

   Western powers see the attack as the latest sign of alleged Russian meddling 
abroad. The tensions threaten to overshadow Putin's expected re-election Sunday 
for another six-year presidential term.

   Meanwhile new tensions have surfaced over the death this week of a 
London-based Russian businessman, Nikolai Glushkov. British police said Friday 
that he died from compression to the neck and opened a murder investigation.

   Russia also suspects foul play in Glushkov's death and opened its own 
inquiry Friday.

   British police said there is no apparent link between the attack on Glushkov 
and the poisoning of the Skripals, but both have raised alarm in the West at a 
time when Russia is increasingly assertive on the global stage and facing 
investigations over alleged interference in the Donald Trump's election as U.S. 


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