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Russia threatens to reciprocate as 18 western nations expel spies

A man walks past the Russian embassy in Prague, Czech Republic as Prime Minister Andrej Babis announces that the country is expelling three staffers from the Russian embassy as part of a coordinated European effort in response to the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain PICTURE: Petr David Josek/AP

SCORES of Russian spies are facing expulsion from western capitals, as allies rallied in an unprecedented show of support for Britain over the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

Theresa May told MPs that in total more than 100 spies were being sent home from 18 nations in the "largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history".

They include the ejection of 60 spies from the US as well as intelligence officers operating in Canada, Ukraine, Albania and 14 European Union member states.

The coordinated move drew a furious response from Moscow, which accused western allies of "blindly following the principle of the Euro-Atlantic unity to the detriment of common sense, the norms of civilised inter-state dialogue and the principles of international law".

Mrs May also the Commons that more than 130 people could have been exposed to the Novichok nerve agent that left Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia critically ill in hospital.

Mrs May told MPs the move to expel diplomats underlined the unity of the west in the face of Russia's deployment of a nerve agent on British soil.

"Together we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russia's continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values," she said.

"President Putin's regime is carrying out acts of aggression against our shared values and interests within our continent and beyond.

"As a sovereign European democracy, the United Kingdom will stand shoulder to shoulder with the EU and with Nato to face down these threats together."

Speaking at the start of a debate on national security and Russia, she added: "Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain critically ill in hospital.

"Sadly, late last week, doctors indicated that their condition is unlikely to change in the near future, and they may never recover fully.

"This shows the utterly barbaric nature of this act, and the dangers that hundreds of innocent citizens in Salisbury could have faced."

In Moscow President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, hinted the Kremlin would respond with tit-for-tat expulsions, saying Russia would proceed from the "principle of reciprocity".

Russia has already ordered 23 British diplomats to leave in response to the expulsion of a similar number of undeclared Russian intelligence officers from the UK.

The Russian foreign ministry said: "This provocative gesture of notorious solidarity with London, made by countries that preferred to follow in London's footsteps without bothering to look into other circumstances of the incident, merely continues the policy of escalating the confrontation".

The coordinated move came after EU leaders last week backed Mrs May's assertion that there was "no plausible alternative explanation" other than Russia was responsible for the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

European Council president Donald Tusk said "additional measures" – including further expulsions – could not be excluded "in the coming days and weeks".

The EU member states taking action include Germany, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Romania and Croatia.

Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said: "Russia has gone too far. An assassination attempt in a European city with a Russian nerve agent is completely unacceptable."

In addition to the expulsions, the White House said the US was also closing the Russian consulate in Seattle "due to its proximity to one of our submarine bases and Boeing".

The White House said: "Today's actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia's ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America's national security.

"With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Commons that Russia had failed to answer questions on the "outrageous" attack carried out in Salisbury.

He said the country "has a direct or indirect responsibility" for the incident but offered "denials and diversion" in response to claims of involvement.

Intelligence experts said the expulsions would hit Russian overseas intelligence operations hard.

Professor Anthony Glees, the director of security and intelligence studies at Buckingham University, said: "Their operations will be severely hampered without any doubt but they certainly won't cease.

"It is still a heavy blow to the Russia intelligence-gathering. They are more on their own than they have ever been."

He told the Press Association it was clear the UK government had "additional secret evidence" about the Salisbury incident which it had shared with allies and which had helped persuade them to act.

"It is clear from the western response that, just as the old cold war generated a common purpose to resist Soviet aggression, this emerging new cold war will make the make the West realise the common threat they face," he said.

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