MOSCOW • Russia has told Britain it must cut "just over 50" more of its diplomatic and technical staff in the country in a worsening stand-off over the poisoning of a Russian former spy and his daughter in England, the Russian Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
More than 100 Russian diplomats have been expelled by various countries, including 23 from Britain itself, to punish the Kremlin over the March 4 attack on Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the historic English city of Salisbury.
London says Moscow was responsible for poisoning the Skripals in the first known use of a military-grade nerve agent on European soil since World War II. Russia flatly denies that and has cast the allegations as part of an elaborate Western plot to sabotage East-West relations and isolate Moscow.
Russia had already retaliated in kind by ejecting 23 British diplomats. On Friday, the Foreign Ministry summoned British Ambassador Laurie Bristow and told him London had one month to further cut its diplomatic contingent in Russia to the same size as the Russian mission in Britain. It also expelled 59 diplomats from 23 other countries for backing Britain.
A spokesman for Britain's Foreign Ministry called the Russian move regrettable, and said it was considering the implications of the measures. It did not say how many diplomatic employees in Russia would be affected, while the British embassy in Moscow says it does not make staff numbers public.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova told Reuters the demand meant Britain would have to cut "a little over 50" more of its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia on top of the 23 diplomats who have already gone home. "We asked for parity. The Brits have 50 diplomats more than the Russians," she said yesterday.
Russia's Ministry of Transport, meanwhile, demanded Britain explain why a Russian passenger plane was searched at Heathrow airport on Friday, in what the Russian embassy in London called a "blatant provocation". It said it could reserve the right to take similar action against British airlines in Russia. Britain said the search was a normal security measure.
Britain said yesterday that it was considering allowing visits under consular access terms to Ms Yulia Skripal, who is recovering in hospital against all expectations and no longer in critical condition.
Russia's embassy said it had contacted Ms Viktoria Skripal, Ms Yulia's cousin. "Upon receiving confirmation that Yulia Skripal's condition is getting better and she is able to communicate, she said she would like to go to London and to visit her cousin," the embassy said.
The BBC, citing sources, reported on Friday that Ms Yulia Skirpal was"conscious and talking", a factor which may influence the investigation of how she and her father were poisoned.