Russia expels 23 U.K. diplomats in dispute over former spy's poisoning

Russia's government is expelling 23 British diplomats and threatening further measures in retaliation in a growing diplomatic dispute over a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain.

U.K. ambassador summoned for meeting at Russian foreign ministry

British Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow leaves the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow on Saturday. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Russia's government is expelling 23 British diplomats and threatening further measures in retaliation in a growing diplomatic dispute over a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain.

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that it is also ordering the closure of the British Council in Russia and ending an agreement to reopen the British consulate in St. Petersburg.

It ordered the diplomats to leave within a week, and summoned Britain's ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, for a meeting Saturday at the ministry in Moscow.

The statement said the government could take further measures if Britain takes any more "unfriendly" moves toward Russia. Meanwhile, a Russian legislator is warning Britain against escalating the diplomatic crisis.

"It is possible that (Britain) will continue to respond; we are ready for this. But London must understand that this will not do anything, it is useless to talk with Russia with such methods," said Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chair of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found slumped over and unresponsive on a park bench on March 4 shortly after they left an Italian restaurant in Salisbury. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

British Prime Minister Theresa May this week expelled 23 Russian diplomats and severed high-level contacts over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal an ex-Russian agent convicted of spying for Britain, and his daughter Yulia.

They remain in critical condition in hospital after being found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, 140 kilometres southwest of London, on March 4.

May had been demanding that Moscow explain how a nerve agent developed during the Soviet Union era was used to make the pair ill before her government announced it would expel the Russian diplomats and sever high-level bilateral contacts with Moscow.

Russia has denied it was responsible for the poisoning.

Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement on Saturday that the country's National Security Council would meet early next week to consider its next steps.

"Our priority today is looking after our staff in Russia and assisting those that will return to the U.K.," the Foreign Office said in its statement.

U.K. says Russia 'culpable'

"The onus remains on the Russian state to account for their actions and to comply with their international obligations."

The Foreign Office said it had expected retaliation, "in light of Russia's previous behaviour."

"This follows the action we have taken, alongside other measures, to dismantle the Russian espionage network operating in the U.K. as a consequence of the attempted assassination of two people here in Britain using a nerve agent.

"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 culpable. It is Russia that is in flagrant breach of international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention."

Labour leader calls for 'cool heads'

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Saturday said the attack in Salisbury should be referred to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

"We have to establish exactly where the nerve gas came from, who administered it and prosecute if we can," he said. "Clearly there was a Russian origin to the design of the nerve gas and that has to be challenged to the Russian government, which is what we would be doing.

"The basis of any assertion or allegation has to be based on evidence, and I'd be very interested if the foreign secretary [Boris Johnson] has evidence that wasn't revealed during the week by the prime minister in two statements to the House of Commons. I think we need cool heads; we need people who are going to be serious about this and not shoot from the hip."

With files from Reuters