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CANCELS ALL HIGHLEVEL CONTACTS

Issued: 2018-03-14

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Theresa May accused Vladimir Putin of acting with 'sarcasm, contempt and defiance' in the wake of the attempt on Sergei Skripal's life

BRITAIN today ordered 23 Russian spooks to leave the country within a week in response to the spy poisoning scandal.

Theresa May told MPs that two dozen so-called diplomats who are in fact spies will be kicked out in a bid to stop Vladimir Putin meddling in Britain.

The PM said Russia had shown "contempt and defiance" in the aftermath of an attempt to kill ex-spy Sergei Skripal and warned that the poisoning represented "the unlawful use of force by Russia against the United Kingdom".

She also confirmed that no ministers or members of the Royal Family will attend this summer's World Cup in Russia - but stopped short of calling on the England team to pull out of the tournament.

Mrs May announced this afternoon:

The expulsion of 23 Russian spies is the toughest act of its kind for 30 years - and will almost certainly spark a tit-for-tat diplomatic war, with British diplomats likely to be kicked out of Moscow.

Mrs May told the House of Commons: "To those who seek to do us harm, our message is clear - you are not welcome here."

Blasting Putin’s refusal to respond to her demand for an explanation, the PM said: “It was right to offer Russia the opportunity to provide an explanation.

“But their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events. They have provided no credible explanation that could suggest they lost control of their nerve agent.

“No explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom; no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law.

“Instead they have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.

“There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter - and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.

“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.”

Any Russian spies who try to re-enter Britain will now be stopped at the border in the same way as terror suspects, the PM said.

She announced that sanctions on human rights violators will be stepped up, and vowed to freeze the assets of the Russian regime if they are being used to meddle in the UK.

Mrs May added: “We will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people - or their money - in our country.”

Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who was due to visit Britain shortly, has had his invitation withdrawn, she announced.

The PM said: “I continue to believe it is not in our national interest to break off all dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation. “But in the aftermath of this appalling act against our country, this relationship cannot be the same.”

And she warned Putin that Britain will not stand alone, revealing that Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have promised to present a united front against Russian atrocities.

The Russian regime has refused to explain its role in the attempted hit  - saying it will take at least ten days to respond to the PM's ultimatum.

And ambassador Alexander Yakovenko went further, saying: "Everything done today is absolutely unacceptable and we consider this a provocation.

"The UK should follow international law. They have to present the request to the organisation and we are happy to consider this within the ten days.

"We believe this is a very serious provocation and of course we are not ready to talk."

His defiant message came as Putin’s main rival called on the UK to hit back by kicking out the Russian oligarchs who own Chelsea and Arsenal.

It has also emerged that police are looking for a mysterious couple who may be witnesses to the attack on Mr Skripal and his daughter while the investigation has widened from Salisbury to Gillingham.

The PM set Russia a deadline of midnight last night to explain how nerve agent novichok came to be used in the brazen attack - but the regime responded by taunting Britain and boasting about its nuclear arsenal.

Mrs May held a meeting of the National Security Council this morning and will later return to the Commons to outline the next steps in the campaign to punish Russia for the assassination attempt.

She is set to announce that a number of Russian diplomats will be thrown out of the UK, Sky News reported, in what would spark a tit-for-tat diplomatic war.

Britain has also called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in a bid to hold the regime to account, while the UK's Nato allies pledged to stand firm alongside us.

Today Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, made the bizarre claim that Russia hasn’t actually received a formal request for information from the UK.

He said Putin’s government would take ten days to respond once the official message is received.

As well as issuing a public ultimatum on Monday, Mrs May summoned the Russian ambassador to the Foreign Office, while Britain’s ambassador to Moscow held talks with Putin officials this week.

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