Czech security forces say they have a reasonable suspicion that members of the Russian intelligence agency GRU were involved in the 2014 explosion of the ammunition depot in Vrbětice in the Zlín region, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced on Saturday.
Due to this revelation, 18 employees of the Russian embassy, who were identified as members of the Russian secret services, will be expelled from the Czech Republic. Police are also looking for two men with a Russian passport, the same ones suspected of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom. In the meantime, several European countries, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Prague, expressed support to Czechia.
“Based on clear evidence obtained through the investigation by our security forces, I must state that there is a reasonable suspicion of involvement of officers of the Russian military intelligence service GRU, unit 29155, in the explosion of ammunition depots in the Vrbětice complex in 2014,” said Babiš.
The prime minister recalled that two people had died in the first of the two explosions. The explosions caused considerable material damage and required the evacuation of residents from nearby villages. Warehouse number 16 in Vrbětice exploded on Oct. 16, 2014, and then the second warehouse number 12 on Dec. 3 of the same year also exploded.
Babiš added that on Saturday, President Miloš Zeman was also informed about the whole matter.
“The president has expressed to us his absolute support,” the prime minister said, adding that “the Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must respond accordingly to these unprecedented findings.”
The Deputy Prime Minister and Acting Foreign Minister Jan Hamáček stated that he had decided to “expel all employees of the Russian Embassy in Prague who were identified by the secret services as officers of the Russian secret services SVR and GRU.”
Russia, which announced that it would respond to the Czech move accordingly, informing on Sunday evening that it would expel 20 Czech diplomats staying in Russia.
“We are in a similar situation as, for example, the United Kingdom in the case of an attempted poisoning in Salisbury in 2018,” Hamaček said, referring to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, with Hamaček adding that Czechia’s allies in the EU and NATO will be informed about the case and will be asked for support.
Link to poisoning in the United Kingdom
The National Headquarters Against Organized Crime (NCOZ) is looking for two men with Russian passports, who in October 2014 moved around the Prague, Moravian-Silesian, and Zlín regions. According to photos and names from passports, these are the same two men who are suspected of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in Salisbury in the United Kingdom in 2018.
The Respekt news outlet, referring to the police sources, stated that both wanted men with passports with fictitious names arrived in the Czech Republic on Oct. 13, 2014, and were booked to visit the ammunition depot in Vrbětice, pretending to be interested in buying weapons.
According to the Seznam Zprávy server, Russian GRU intelligence focused on Vrbětice due to the war in Syria, where ammunition was allegedly headed from the Vrbětice warehouse. According to investigators, Russia may have attempted to sabotage the depot to prevent ammunition from reaching US allies in Syria, who wanted to help the rebels in Syria fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. The Russians, on the other hand, supported Assad’s government.
The Právo daily then wrote that the weapons were intended for the Bulgarian businessman Jemeljan Gebrev. He sold weapons to Ukraine, but probably to other countries, Syria included. A year after the explosion in Vrbětice, Gebrev was poisoned with the same poison as Skripal in 2018. However, he survived the attack. Bulgarian investigators and Gebrev himself attributed the poisoning to Russian military intelligence. The motive for the attempted murder was allegedly arms deliveries to Ukraine but also to Georgia in 2008.
The Lidové noviny daily stated, referring to sources close to the investigation, that men wanted by NCOZ reached the premises in Vrbětice on Oct. 15, the day before the explosion, and set up explosive devices there. However, these devices most likely exploded earlier than planned as the explosion was reportedly supposed to kill the recipient of the weapons supply.
Deputy Prime Minister Hamáček also canceled his trip to Moscow, where he wanted to discuss possible supplies of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.
Support from abroad
Babiš has already spoken with the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, about the suspicion of the involvement of members of Russia’s intelligence services in the explosion of the ammunition complex in Vrbětice.
Information about the involvement of Russian GRU intelligence officers in the explosion also prompted reaction from a number of foreign officials. The Czech Republic was supported, for example, by Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevich, his British counterpart Dominic Raab, and the U.S. Embassy in Prague.
“The United States stands with its steadfast Ally, the Czech Republic. We appreciate their significant action to impose costs on Russia for its dangerous actions on Czech soil,” stated Jennifer Bachus, US Chargé d’affaires.
“The United States stands with its steadfast Ally, the Czech Republic. We appreciate their significant action to impose costs on Russia for its dangerous actions on Czech soil.” – CdA Jennifer Bachus https://t.co/Qx71P3T08r
— U.S. Embassy Prague ???? (@USEmbassyPrague) April 17, 2021
The British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab also expressed support to the Czech Republic.
“The UK stands in full support of our Czech allies, who have exposed the lengths that the GRU will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations – and highlights a disturbing pattern of behavior following the attack in Salisbury,” wrote Raab on Twitter.
“We are as determined and committed as ever to bring those responsible for the attack in Salisbury to justice, and commend the actions of the Czech authorities to do the same. Russia must desist from these actions, which violate the most basic international norms,” added Raab.
The UK stands in full support of our Czech allies, who have exposed the lengths that the GRU will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations – and highlights a disturbing pattern of behaviour following the attack in Salisbury. https://t.co/dv4rWDl91I
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) April 18, 2021
The words of support were sent by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, as well.
“Slovakia is closely following the suspected foreign-led subversive actions that resulted in a loss of life and massive damage in Vrbetice. We stand by Czechia and support the steps taken,” commented Čaputová.
— Zuzana Čaputová (@ZuzanaCaputova) April 18, 2021
The Czech Republic was also supported by the North Atlantic Alliance.
“This is another case of Russia’s dangerous behavior. We express our condolences to the relatives of the victims of the explosion in Vrbětice. Those responsible must be held accountable,” said one NATO official.
Title image: In this file combination photo made available by the Metropolitan Police on Wednesday Sept. 5, 2018, shows men identified as Alexander Petrov, left, and Ruslan Boshirov. The Czech Republic announced Saturday that it was expelling 18 Russian diplomats who it has identified as spies in a case related to a huge ammunition depot explosion in 2014. Czech police’s organized crime unit on Saturday April 17, 2021 published photos of two foreign citizens who visited the country, including the Zlin region where Vrbetice is located, between Oct. 11 and Oct. 16 in 2014 and asked the public for any information about them. (Metropolitan Police via AP)