March 26, 2018 / 6:05 PM / a year ago

France to expel four Russian diplomats over Salisbury attack

PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Monday it would expel four Russian diplomats within a week in response to the nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy in southern England, the first such decision since 1983.

A sign is seen in front of the Russian embassy in Paris, France, March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The move came as European governments and the United States took coordinated action after the attack, which they have blamed on Moscow.

“In solidarity with our British partners, we have today notified the Russian authorities of our decision to expel four Russian personnel with diplomatic status from French territory within one week,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said in a statement.

A French diplomatic source said the four diplomats, part of the 90-strong Russian diplomatic corps in France, were the defence attache, head of the economic mission, consul general in Strasbourg and an official at the consulate in Marseille.

The source said the four diplomats were linked to Russian intelligence activities on French soil.

It was the first official expulsion of Russian diplomats from France since KGB colonel Vladimir Vetrov, code-named Farewell, provided classified information that led to the expulsion of Russian spies from the United States and other countries around the world in the early 1980s.

The French decision follows talks between President Emmanuel Macron, Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May last Thursday.

It comes at a tricky time for Paris, which under Macron has tried to build a new relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for trade and to seek influence with Russia over its engagement in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Tensions were high between Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande and Putin, especially over Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, which prompted Paris to cancel a multi-billion dollar warship deal.

“This decision is significant and difficult because, as you know, we have a commitment to hold a dialogue with this country ... to resolve serious crisis,” the diplomatic source said.

The diplomat said France expected Moscow to respond in kind, but that Paris, like its allies, wanted Russia to provide answers for its actions.

“This is not about breaking ties with the Russians, but to send a message that outlines our concerns. We have demands and we shall see how they respond to them,” the source said, adding it was too early to discuss further measures.

Macron is due to be the guest of honour at an investor forum in St. Petersburg in late May, when a large French business delegation will accompany him.

“What is clear is that we do not want to show any signs of weakness,” the source said.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Richard Lough and Kevin Liffey

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