Connect with us

News

Livid Russia expels 20 Czechs after blast blamed on Skripal suspects

Published

 on

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Robert Muller

MOSCOW/PRAGUE (Reuters) -Moscow expelled 20 Czech diplomats on Sunday in a confrontation over Czech allegations that two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were behind an earlier explosion at a Czech ammunition depot that killed two people.

Prague had on Saturday ordered out 18 Russian diplomats, prompting Russia to vow on Sunday to “force the authors of this provocation to fully understand their responsibility for destroying the foundation of normal ties between our countries”.

Moscow gave the Czech diplomats just a day to leave, while Prague had given the Russians 72 hours.

The Czech Republic said it had informed NATO and European Union allies that it suspected Russia of causing the 2014 blast, and European Union foreign ministers were set to discuss the matter at their meeting on Monday.

The U.S. State Department commended Prague’s firm response to “Russia’s subversive actions on Czech soil”.

The row is the biggest between Prague and Moscow since the end of decades of Soviet domination of eastern Europe in 1989.

It also adds to growing tensions between Russia and the West in general, raised in part by Russia’s military build-up on its Western borders and in Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, after a surge in fighting between government and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s east.

Russia said Prague’s accusations were absurd as it had previously blamed the blast at Vrbetice, 300 km (210 miles) east of the capital, on the depot’s owners.

It called the expulsions “the continuation of a series of anti-Russian actions undertaken by the Czech Republic in recent years”, accusing Prague of “striving to please the United States against the backdrop of recent U.S. sanctions against Russia”.

ARMS SHIPMENT

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the attack had been aimed at a shipment to a Bulgarian arms trader.

“This was an attack on ammunition that had already been paid for and was being stored for a Bulgarian arms trader,” he said on Czech Television.

He said the arms trader, whom he did not name, had later been the target of an attempted murder.

Bulgarian prosecutors charged three Russian men in 2020 with an attempt to kill arms trader Emilian Gebrev, who was identified by Czech media as the same individual. Reuters was unable to reach Gebrev for comment.

Czech police said two men using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov had travelled to the Czech Republic days before the arms depot blast.

Those names were the aliases used by the two Russian GRU military intelligence officers wanted by Britain for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018. The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died.

The Kremlin denied involvement in that incident, and the attackers remain at large.

Czech interior and acting foreign minister Jan Hamacek said police knew about the two people from the beginning, “but only found out when the Salisbury attack happened that they are members of the GRU, that Unit 29155”.

Hamacek said Prague would ask Moscow for assistance in questioning them, but did not expect it to cooperate.

“DANGEROUS AND MALIGN”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that the Czechs “have exposed the lengths that the GRU will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations”.

A NATO official said the alliance would support the Czech Republic as it investigated Russia’s “malign activities”, which were part of a pattern of “dangerous behaviour”.

“Those responsible must be brought to justice,” added the official, who declined to be named.

The United States imposed sanctions against Russia on Thursday for interfering in last year’s U.S. election, cyber hacking, bullying Ukraine and other actions, prompting Moscow to retaliate.

On Sunday, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington had told Moscow “there will be consequences” if Alexei Navalny, the opposition figurehead who almost died last year after being given a toxin that Western experts say was Novichok, dies in prison, where he is on hunger strike.

The 2014 incident has resurfaced at an awkward time for Prague and Moscow.

The Czech Republic is planning to put the construction of a new nuclear power plant at its Dukovany complex out to tender.

Security services have demanded that Russia’s Rosatom be excluded as a security risk, while President Milos Zeman and other senior officials have been putting Russia’s case.

In a text message, Industry Minister Karel Havlicek, who was previously in favour of including Russia, told Reuters: “The probability that Rosatom will participate in the expansion of Dukovany is very low.”

(Additional reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Elizabeth Piper in London, Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Phil Stewart in WashingtonEditing by Kevin Liffey, Mark Heinrich, Alexandra Hudson)

Continue Reading

News

China to release results of once-in-a-decade census on May 11

Published

 on

China is expected to release the results of its once-in-a-decade census conducted late last year on May 11, according to a notice from the State Council Information Office.

Officials from the census and statistics bureaus will brief the media on the census results on May 11, the State Council Information Office said in a notice on Sunday.

The National Bureau of Statistics said previously that the results would be released at a media briefing scheduled for early April. It later said the announcement had been delayed, as more preparatory work needed to be done.

 

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Hallie Gu and Xiao Han; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

Continue Reading

News

Afghan school blast toll rises to 58, families bury victims

Published

 on

The death toll from an explosion outside a school in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul has risen to 58, Afghan officials said on Sunday, with doctors struggling to provide medical care to at least 150 injured.

The bombing on Saturday evening shook the city’s Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi. The community, a religious minority in Afghanistan, has been targeted in the past by Islamic State militants, a Sunni militant group.

An eyewitness told Reuters all but seven or eight of the victims were schoolgirls going home after finishing studies.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday blamed the attack on Taliban insurgents but a spokesman for the Taliban denied involvement, saying the group condemns any attacks on Afghan civilians.

Families of the victims blamed the Afghan government and Western powers for failing to put an end to violence and the ongoing war.

Bodies were still being collected from morgues as the first burials were conducted in the west of the city. Some families were still searching for missing relatives on Sunday, gathering outside hospitals to read names posted on the walls, and checking morgues.

“The entire night we carried bodies of young girls and boys to a graveyard and prayed for everyone wounded in the attack,” said Mohammed Reza Ali, who has been helping families of the victims at a private hospital.

“Why not just kill all of us to put and end to this war?” he said.

The violence comes a week after remaining U.S. and NATO troops began exiting Afghanistan, with a mission to complete the drawdown by September 11, which will mark the end of America’s longest war.

But the foreign troop withdrawal has led a surge in fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban insurgents with both sides trying to retain control over strategic centres.

(Reporting by Kabul bureau, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Continue Reading

News

Chinese rocket debris lands in Indian Ocean, draws criticism from NASA

Published

 on

By Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) -Remnants of China’s biggest rocket landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday, with most of its components destroyed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, ending days of speculation over where the debris would hit but drawing U.S. criticism over lack of transparency.

The coordinates given by Chinese state media, citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office, put the point of impact in the ocean, west of the Maldives archipelago.

Debris from the Long March 5B has had some people looking warily skyward since it blasted off from China’s Hainan island on April 29, but the China Manned Space Engineering Office said most of the debris was burnt up in the atmosphere.

State media reported parts of the rocket re-entered the atmosphere at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time (0224 GMT) and landed at a location with the coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north.

The U.S. Space command confirmed the re-entry of the rocket over the Arabian Peninsula, but said it was unknown if the debris impacted land or water.

“The exact location of the impact and the span of debris, both of which are unknown at this time, will not be released by U.S. Space Command,” it said in a statement on its website.

The Long March was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May 2020. Last year, pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut who was picked for the role in March, said in a statement after the re-entry.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

ANXIETY OVER POTENTIAL DEBRIS ZONE

With most of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the odds of populated area on land being hit had been low, and the likelihood of injuries even lower, according to experts.

But uncertainty over the rocket’s orbital decay and China’s failure to issue stronger reassurances in the run-up to the re-entry fuelled anxiety.

“It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities,” Nelson said.

Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.

Since large chunks of the NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit in July 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have sought to avoid such uncontrolled re-entries through their spacecraft design, McDowell said.

“It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this,” said McDowell.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid, dismissed as “Western hype” concerns the rocket was “out of control” and could cause damage.

“It is common practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, said at a regular media briefing on May 7.

“To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low,” Wang said at the time.

The rocket, which put into orbit an unmanned Tianhe module containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent Chinese space station, will be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station by 2022.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Hallie Gu and Xiao Han in Beijing and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Himani Sarkar & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Continue Reading

Trending