Czech, Russian envoys fly home amid depot explosion dispute

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Embassy staff prepare to load luggage into a car inside the Czech Republic Embassy in Moscow, Russia, Monday, April 19, 2021. Russia has ordered 20 Czech diplomats to leave the country within a day in response to Prague's expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats. The Czech government has alleged the Russian Embassy staffers were spies for a military intelligence agency that was involved in a fatal ammunition depot explosion in 2014. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

PRAGUE – The two Russian military agents believed to be behind a massive Czech depot explosion in 2014 likely targeted the ammunition, not the Czech Republic itself, the country's prime minister and prosecutor general said Monday.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he didn’t consider the Russian action “an act of state terrorism” but said “the presence of GRU agents is absolutely unacceptable.”

“We’re a sovereign state and it’s unacceptable for foreign agents to conduct such operations here,” Babis said.

On Sunday, Russia ordered 20 Czech diplomats to leave the country within a day in response to the Czech government’s expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats it identified as spies from the GRU and the SVR, Russia’s military and foreign intelligence services. Both sides sent government planes Monday to take the envoys and their families home.

Pavel Zeman, the Czech prosecutor general, said the ammunition targeted was mostly meant to be sent to an arms dealer in Bulgaria and be intentionally exploded after delivery. The 2014 depot blast in the town of Vrbetice killed two people.

“The explosion was not supposed to occur on Czech Republic’s territory,” Zeman said.

Zeman said the two Russian suspects were using false identities on passports from Tajikistan and Moldova when they booked a visit to the depot. They stayed in Prague and the eastern city of Ostrava, about two-hour drive from the depot, which is located in the eastern Czech Republic.

The suspects also used Russian passports to travel to the Czech Republic.