PRAGUE (AFP) – The first plane carrying Russian diplomats ordered to leave during a diplomatic spat last month took off on Saturday (May 29) from Prague’s airport, an Agence France-Presse photographer said.
The special flight is to be followed by another on Monday, the deadline for 63 Russian embassy employees to leave the Czech Republic.
Prague and Moscow decided to cap the number of diplomats at their respective embassies at 32 in April, following a rift over Russian intelligence services’ role in two deadly explosions on Czech soil.
Czech intelligence suspects two Russian spies orchestrated the blasts at an eastern Czech military depot that killed two people in 2014.
The announcement led Prague to expel 18 Russian diplomats suspected to be spies, while Moscow kicked out 20 Czech embassy staff in retaliation, sending bilateral relations to their lowest level in decades.
The alleged agents of Russia’s GRU military secret service are the same ones suspected of poisoning former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England in 2018.
Media said the explosions were supposed to have occurred outside the depot to destroy arms owned by a Bulgarian dealer and possibly heading for Ukraine.
Russia triggered tension with the West in 2014 by annexing the Crimean peninsula that belongs to Ukraine, and backing rebels in a conflict with Ukrainian forces in the east of the country.
In mid-May, Moscow designated the Czech Republic, alongside the United States, as an “unfriendly state” that has “carried out unfriendly actions” against Russia.