Two Russian diplomats are being expelled by the Czech government amid a hoax poison plot against three Prague politicians.
The government in Prague says infighting between Russian embassy staff resulted in one of them sending details of the fictitious plot to Czech intelligence. In response, the three mayors were initially given police protection.
Russia condemned the expulsions as an “unfriendly act”.
The expulsion was announced on Friday by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who described the move as “appropriate and adequate”.
“We are interested in having good relations with all countries, but we are a sovereign state and such actions are unacceptable on our territory.” He gave no more details about the new information.
“The government has offered an explanation, but we still don’t see the full picture,” said Ondřej Kundra of the Czech weekly Respekt, the journalist who broke the original story about the plot. “It’s hard to imagine the government would expel two Russian diplomats just because they said nasty things about each other.”
Was there a plot?
Details of an apparent plot first emerged in Czech weekly, Respekt, which reported that a Russian agent had travelled to Prague with a suitcase containing the highly potent toxin, ricin.
It claimed the poison might be used to target Czech politicians who had angered Russia. At the time Russia condemned the reports as “misinformation” and “sick fantasies”.
Czech TV then named the man involved as Andrei Konchakov, head of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Prague, and he rubbished the story saying he had merely brought “disinfectant and sweets” in his suitcase
Mr. Konchakov is one of the two diplomats ordered to leave, along with his deputy, Igor Rybakov, an official has told Ria Novosti.
The reports were taken seriously enough to send Ondrej Kolar, mayor of Prague’s sixth district, into hiding. He had ordered the removal of a statue of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev in Prague, angering Russia.
Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib had also annoyed Moscow by renaming a square next to the Russian embassy after murdered Russia opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Another mayor had backed a memorial to the anti-Soviet “Russian Liberation Army”.
The Russian embassy in Prague dismissed the expulsion on its Facebook page as “provocation”.
“Based on ungrounded accusations in the media from the beginning, this hostile step shows Prague is not interested in normalising Russian-Czech relations, which have recently degraded, for which we cannot be blamed,” the embassy said.
At least three Russian airlines have canceled most of their Tuesday flights to the Czech Republic over what they said was the country’s decision to revoke flight permissions to and from Prague.
The flagship carrier Aeroflot and Ural Airlines are the only Russian airlines that perform direct flights to and from Prague. Czech Airlines performs return flights to and from Moscow twice a day.
“Because of the decision by the Czech Republic’s aviation authorities to revoke earlier issued permits for Moscow-Prague-Moscow flights, Aeroflot has to cancel following flights: SU2010/2011, SU2014/2015, SU2016/2017 and SU2018/2019, scheduled for 2 July”, the airline said in a statement.
At the same time, flights SU2012/2013 and SU2024/2025 will be carried out as scheduled, according to Aeroflot.
Ural Airlines also “indefinitely” canceled flights to Prague from Moscow and Yekaterinburg on Tuesday, then said its Yekaterinburg-Prague flights had been restored.
Aeroflot-owned Pobeda Airlines canceled flights from Moscow to the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary.
The Czech Republic “used the parity rule” and revoked Russia’s permits because it was unhappy with terms offered to Czech Airlines for flights going over Siberia from Prague to Seoul, the country’s transport ministry said.
No statement has been issued by Aeroflot regarding the decision by the Czech aviation authorities. According to the Russia-based airline, the company will closely monitor the situation and any affected passengers will be updated on new developments.