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Russia demands answers over illegal search of airplane in London

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
British authorities On Friday searched a Russian Aeroflot plane at London’s Heathrow airport after forcing out the crew and locking the captain in the cockpit. (File photo)

British authorities have searched a Russian Aeroflot plane at London’s Heathrow airport without providing any reasons for the inspection, Russia’s Embassy in Britain says, describing the incident as a “provocation” and in breach of international law.

“Today, we have witnessed another blatant provocation by the British authorities,” the embassy said in a statement on Friday. “Border Force and Customs officers have searched the aircraft that was conducting the Aeroflot flights 2582 / 2583, Moscow – London – Moscow. This kind of event is extraordinary.”

The executives of the Russian flag carrier said the officers at Heathrow airport asked for the inspection of the plane without explanation and demanded that the crew leave the plane before the search.

Locking the captain in the cockpit

The captain reportedly refused to abandon the aircraft as it was against regulations to inspect an aircraft in the absence of the crew; however, the British authorities locked the captain in the cockpit and proceeded with the search.

“The British officials tried to search the aircraft without the crew being present, something categorically prohibited by the rules in force,” the Russian Embassy statement said. “After the search was over, the British officers refused to provide any written document that would specify the reasons for their actions, their legal foundation and their outcome.”

The embassy added that it had sent a diplomatic note demanding the British side to provide explanation.

“At this moment, we have no other explanation but that the incident at Heathrow is in one way or another connected with the hostile policy that the UK government is conducting with regard to Russia,” it said, in reference to the recent series of accusations and diplomat expulsions by the UK over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain.

Ties between Moscow and London hit a new low after Britain accused Russia of the poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, without offering any proof.

Russia has denied any involvement in the incident, which occurred on March 4 in the British city of Salisbury.

‘British secrecy points to possible manipulation’

Commenting on the search performed aboard the Aeroflot plane, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, “The behavior of the UK police clearly indicates the desire to conduct some kind of manipulations on board without witnesses.”

Zakharova said British authorities needed this “provocation” to save their “reputation, which was heavily undermined by the so-called Skripal case.”

She denounced London’s actions as “unacceptable, dangerous, and irresponsible.”

Moscow expels 59 diplomats from 23 countries

Following the poisoning incident, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats and their families, prompting Russia to send back as many British diplomatic personnel.

Many Western or Western-backed countries followed suit, expelling various numbers of Russian diplomats, despite the failure by the UK to provide any evidence and the Russian denials.

Moscow primarily warned against an escalation but later proceeded to expel foreign diplomats in accordance with its policy of reciprocation.

On Friday, Russia expelled 59 diplomats from 23 countries and said it reserved the right to take action against four other nations as part of tit-for-tat measures.

Diplomatic vehicles leave the US Consulate in Saint Petersburg, March 30, 2018. Russia on Thursday announced a mass expulsion of US diplomats and the closure of the US Consulate in Saint Petersburg in retaliation to coordinated moves by Western countries to expel Russian diplomats. (Photo by AFP)

The UK says the nerve agent allegedly used in the poisoning was Novichok, which was developed in the former Soviet Union, basing its accusations against Moscow on that assertion.

Moscow says the substance could have originated in the countries studying Novichok, including the UK itself, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Sweden.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the UK’s allegations “absurd” and “nonsense.”

So far, 24 European countries have announced that they will be expelling 122 Russian diplomats over the coming days. NATO also expelled seven diplomats from Russia’s mission to the alliance.

The diplomatic tensions are unprecedented since the days of the Cold War.

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