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Russia expels 23 UK diplomats as fallout over nerve agent attack grows

By Laura Smith-Spark and Matthew Chance, CNN

(CNN) -- Russia's Foreign Ministry ordered the expulsion of 23 British diplomats from Russia on Saturday in a tit-for-tat response to Britain's decision to expel Russian envoys in connection with the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter on British soil.

The ministry also declared it was closing the British Consulate General in St Petersburg and the British Council in Russia, in a step beyond the measures taken by Britain. The British Council is a cultural institute with artistic, language and educational programs.

The British diplomats have a week to leave, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. The UK ambassador to Moscow, Laurie Bristow, was summoned to the ministry on Saturday morning and told of Moscow's action.

Relations between the two nations have deteriorated rapidly since the March 4 nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. The pair remain critically ill in the hospital.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May gave the 23 Russian diplomats -- whom she described as undeclared intelligence officers -- a week to leave on Wednesday as she accused the Russian state of being "culpable" for the attack in Salisbury.

Russia, which denies any involvement in the incident, condemned May's decision as unacceptable and vowed a swift response.

The British Embassy in Moscow told CNN it had been given a list of 23 specific individuals that were to be expelled from Russia.

The UK government was backed this week by allies France, Germany and the United States in its assessment that there was "no plausible alternative explanation" than that Russia was responsible for the nerve agent attack. UK officials believe the Skripals were exposed to a nerve agent known as Novichok that was developed in Russia.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson upped the stakes Friday when he said it was "overwhelmingly likely" that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally gave the order to use the nerve agent against the Skripals.

In a dramatic twist Friday, London's Metropolitan Police said that the death of Russian businessman Nikolai Glushkov, who was found dead Monday in his London home, was now being treated as murder.

A post-mortem exam on the Russian exile, who had links to compatriots who died in mysterious circumstances in the UK, "gave the cause of death as compression to the neck," a police statement said. There's no evidence at this stage that his death and the attack on the Skripals are linked, it said.

Russia's Investigative Committee said it had launched its own criminal proceedings in connection with the "attempted murder of a Russian citizen, Yulia Skripal" in Salisbury and the "murder" of Glushkov in London.

UK-Russia relations have been fractious ever since the assassination of another former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in 2006.

A UK inquiry found that two Russian agents poisoned Litvinenko at a London hotel bar in 2006 by spiking his tea with highly radioactive polonium-210, and that Putin "probably approved" Litvinenko's killing. The Kremlin has always denied the accusation.

Sergei Skripal was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006 for spying for Britain, according to Russian state media accounts of the closed hearing.

Russian court officials at the time said he'd received at least $100,000 for his work for MI6, the British intelligence service. He was granted refuge in the UK after a high-profile spy exchange between the United States and Russia in 2010.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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