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Russia expels 23 British diplomats as nerve toxin attack crisis deepens

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MOSCOW — Russia has expelled 23 British diplomats on Saturday in a carefully calibrated retaliatory move against London, which has accused the Kremlin of orchestrating a nerve toxin attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in southern England.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry ministry issued a statement saying 23 employees of the British embassy in Moscow have been declared personae non gratae.

The Ministry summoned the British ambassador, Laurie Bristow, to a meeting on Saturday morning in central Moscow at its headquarters during which he was informed of the retaliatory measures.

The diplomats must leave within a week. It also announced the operation of the British Council in Russia will be ceased given its ‘unregulated status’.

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Russia said it was also shutting down the activities of the British Council, which fosters cultural links between the two countries, and Britain’s consulate-general in St. Petersburg.

The move, which was tougher than expected, followed Britain’s decision on Wednesday to expel 23 Russian diplomats over the attack in the English city of Salisbury which left former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, critically ill in hospital.

Moscow announced the measures on the eve of a presidential election which incumbent Vladimir Putin should comfortably win.

The Foreign Ministry said Moscow’s measures were a response to what it called Britain’s “provocative actions and groundless accusations”.

It warned London it stood ready to take further measures in the event of more “unfriendly steps”.

Relations between London and Moscow have crashed to a post-Cold War low over the Salisbury attack, the first known offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War Two.

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China conduct live fire drill along southeast coastline

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BEIJING — China’s military has conducted live-fire drills along the southeast coastline, state television reported, but it was unclear if these were the same exercises that had been flagged as taking place in the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

The government had said the drills would happen on Wednesday off the city of Quanzhou, in between two groups of islands close to China’s coast but that Taiwan has controlled since 1949 when defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war.

Chinese state media has said the drills were a direct response to “provocations” by Taiwan leaders related to what China fears are moves to push for the self-ruled island’s formal independence. China claims Taiwan as its sacred territory.

Late on Wednesday, Chinese state television showed footage of helicopters firing missiles during an exercise it said was happening on China’s southeast coast.

State television only showed pictures of helicopters, with no mention of ships or other military equipment such as tanks or amphibious assault vehicles.

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The exercises took place from 8 a.m. (0000GMT) until midnight, the report said, giving the same time frame for the previously announced drills in the Taiwan Strait.

The Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the exercise, and whether it was the same ones previously reported to be happening in the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan on Wednesday denounced the exercises, saying Beijing was using “cheap verbal intimidation and saber rattling” to threaten the island.

Taiwan is one of China’s most sensitive issues and a potential military flashpoint. China has ramped up military exercises around Taiwan in the past year, including flying bombers around the island.

Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said on Wednesday afternoon two Chinese H-6K bombers had flown around the island, passing first through the Miyako Strait to Taiwan’s northeast and then back to base via the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.

The latest Chinese military movements come during a time of heightened tension between Beijing and the island and follows strong warnings by Chinese President Xi Jinping against Taiwan separatism last month.

China claims Taiwan as its own and considers it a breakaway province.

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