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Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov as they attend a security council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 15, 2018. Lavrov said Thursday that Moscow would "certainly" expel some British diplomats in a tit-for-tat response. In remarks carried by the RIA Novosti news agency, Lavrov said the move would come "soon." (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russia will expel British diplomats in poisoning standoff

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By ANGELA CHARLTON and DANICA KIRKA, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia will expel British diplomats in a worsening global standoff over a nerve agent attack on an ex-spy — but still isn't saying when or how many.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday also accused Britain of violating international law and said Britain's defense minister "lacks education."

Geopolitical tensions are mounting since the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month, in what Western powers see as the latest sign of increasingly aggressive Russian meddling abroad. The tensions threaten to overshadow Vladimir Putin's expected re-election Sunday for another six-year term.

Accusing the Russian state of the nerve agent attack, Britain is expelling 23 Russian diplomats and is trying to build a coalition of countries to punish Moscow as a result.

British Prime Minister Theresa May's office said Friday that Australian leader Malcolm Turnbull joined her in condemnation of the attack. In an unusual joint move Wednesday, the U.S., France and Germany also pointed the finger at Russia.

The source of the nerve agent used — which Britain says is Soviet-made Novichok — is unclear. A report Friday in the Telegraph says it was put in the suitcase of Skripal's daughter before she left Russia for Britain to see her father.

Russia denies being the source of the nerve agent, suggesting it could have been another country, and has demanded Britain share samples collected by investigators.

Lavrov said Friday that Russia will "of course" expel British diplomats and that he hopes the Skripals recover soon so light can be shed on what happened.

May severed high-level contacts with Moscow and vowed actions against Russian dirty money and "hostile state activity." Downing Street called the attack "an unlawful use of force by the Russians against the U.K."

Russia's ambassador to Britain said Friday the 23 expulsions will reduce staff at the embassy by about 40 percent. Alexander Yakovenko said on Russia-24 television it will have a "serious impact" on the embassy's work.

The war of words between Moscow and London continued Friday, with Lavrov lashing back at British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson for saying Russia "should go away and shut up."

"Perhaps he also wants to go down in history with some loud statements. ... I don't know, perhaps he lacks education," Lavrov told a news conference after talks on Syria's war with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts.

An 83-year-old Russian whistleblower who helped develop Novichok said in an interview published Friday that he thinks the Skripals have little chance of surviving.

Vil Mirzayanov, who now lives in New Jersey, is quoted in Novaya Gazeta as saying it's unlikely the nerve agent came from another former Soviet country. But he said a few countries in the world have laboratories powerful enough to develop the nerve agent thanks to the formula he published in 2008.

Mirzayanov said the use of Novichok in Britain was a "shock." He said he revealed its existence because he thought it was necessary to deprive Russia of its "deadly secret."

___

Danica Kirka reported from London.

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