The European Union says it stands in "full support and solidarity" with the Czech Republic amid a diplomatic spat between Prague and Moscow over Czech claims that Russian military agents linked to the 2018 Skripal nerve-agent poisoning in Britain were behind an earlier explosion at a Czech arms depot that killed two people.
The EU "is deeply concerned about the repeating negative pattern of dangerous malign behaviour by Russia in Europe," the lead spokesman for the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on April 19 following talks between the bloc's foreign minister on the matter.
The spokesman, Peter Stano, said in a statement that "Russia must stop with these activities, which violates well-established international principles and norms and threaten stability in Europe.'
The previous day, Russia ordered 20 Czech Embassy employees in Moscow to leave the country in response to the Czech government's expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats it identified as being intelligence operatives. Both sides sent government planes on April 19 to take the envoys and their families home.
The tit-for-tat move and Czech allegations have triggered its biggest dispute with Russia since the 1989 end of communist rule, putting the small Central European NATO member at the center of rising tensions between Moscow and the West.
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The foreign ministers of the so-called Visegrad Group consisting of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia condemned "all activities aimed at threatening security of sovereign states and its citizens,' according to a statement published on the website of the Polish Foreign Ministry.
The ministers said that they "stand ready to further strengthen our resilience against subversive actions at both national level and together with our NATO allies and within [the] EU."
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the decision to expel the Russians was based on 'unequivocal evidence' provided by Czech investigators pointing to the involvement of Russian military intelligence agents in the 2014 blast in the eastern town of Vrbetice.
Babis said the 2014 attack was 'not an act of state terrorism' but was aimed at a shipment to a Bulgarian arms trader, without naming the individual.
"We're a sovereign state and it's unacceptable for foreign agents to conduct such operations here," he said.
The October 16, 2014 explosion in Vrbetice set off 50 metric tons of stored ammunition, killing two people. Two months later, another blast of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site.
The Kremlin on April 19 called the Czech moves 'provocative and unfriendly.'
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that in addition to the expulsions, the Czech Embassy in Moscow will no longer be allowed to employ Russian citizens.
'It's been decided both with regard to the United States of America and the Czech Republic, that they won't be able to employ citizens of our country any longer. This factor has played an especially important role, in particular, for the Czech Embassy and for the organization of its work in Moscow. They employed a very large number of Russian citizens,' she said in an interview on Rossia-1 television.
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