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Russia closes Swedish consulate, expels diplomats in retaliatory move

View of the Russian Foreign Ministry's building in Moscow

In diplomatic countermeasures, the Kremlin says it will shutter its consulate in Sweden and informed Stockholm that it will also close Swedish consulate in Russia, declaring five Swedish diplomats persona non grata.

In a statement on Thursday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said Swedish Ambassador Malena Mard had been summoned earlier in the day and informed that "given Sweden’s conformational course toward the Russian Federation, it was decided to suspend the activity of the Russian Consulate General in Gothenburg."

The ministry said the head of the Swedish Consulate-General in St Petersburg was informed that Moscow was "revoking its consent for the activity" of consulate "from September 1, 2023."

Both closures will take place at the same time.

According to the statement, Stockholm had expelled five Russian diplomats on April 15, in what has been regarded by Moscow as "an openly hostile measure" by the Swedish government, which declared the Russian diplomats persona non grata on accusations of espionage.

"These actions by the Swedish authorities have further aggravated bilateral relations, which have reached an unprecedently low level, including as a result of the ongoing Russophobic campaign in Sweden," the ministry said.

In a retaliatory move, Russia said it would expel five Swedish diplomats.

"The Swedish Ambassador was told that the Russian party has decided to declare five Swedish diplomats personae non grata, including three employees under the military attaché at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. They were instructed to leave the Russian Federation within the same time period that was given to Russia’s employees by the Swedish authorities," the ministry stated.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom lamented the Russian decision as "very regrettable."

"Russia has chosen to expel Swedish diplomats who have acted within the framework of the Vienna Convention and conducted customary diplomatic activities in Russia," Billstrom said in a statement, deploring the closures.

Sweden hopes to join NATO before the military bloc's next summit in Lithuania in July.

Russia summons Germany, Denmark, Sweden envoys over Nord Stream probe

In another development on Thursday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the ambassadors of Germany, Denmark and Sweden to protest over the "complete lack of results" in a probe to identify who was behind a bomb attack against the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year.

"It has been noted that these countries are not interested in establishing the true circumstances of this sabotage. On the contrary, they are delaying their efforts and trying to conceal the tracks and the true perpetrators of the crime behind which we believe are well-known countries," the ministry said in a statement.

Two of the pipelines, known collectively as Nord Stream 1, had been providing Germany and much of Western Europe with cheap Russian natural gas for more than a decade. A second pair of pipelines, known as Nord Stream 2, had been built but were not yet operational.

In September last year, three huge gas leaks, preceded by a series of blasts, occurred on the pipelines. The powerful explosions, according to Moscow, knocked out three of the four strings of the Nord Stream network off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm.

The 1,200-kilometer pipelines, operated by Russian gas giant Gazprom, are not currently in operation, but they both still contain gas under pressure.

Following the blasts, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden conducted investigations into the blasts. The preliminary results of a joint probe by Sweden and Denmark showed the blasts had been "intentional sabotage," but the responsibility was not assigned to any party. Moscow has been blaming the West ever since the explosions.

In February, veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in a detailed report published on his blog, claimed the bombing had been directly ordered by US President Joe Biden and carried out by the CIA with the help of the US Navy.

The White House swiftly rejected the report as "utterly false and complete fiction." The CIA and the US State Department also rejected the report.

"It is no coincidence that 'leaked' improbable versions (of what happened) are dumped in the media to try to muddy the waters," the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, stressing that Moscow would keep trying to ensure that Germany, Denmark and Sweden conducted what it called an objective investigation with Russia participating too.

Wagner says handing Bakhmut to Russian army

Separately on Thursday, the head of Russia's private security company Wagner said his forces had began transferring their positions in the flashpoint eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut to Russian troops.

"We are withdrawing units from Bakhmut today. We are handing over positions to the military, ammunition and everything," said Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of mercenaries of the Wagner group.

He said some Wagner forces could remain if regular Russian troops faced difficulties.

Bakhmut and its surrounding towns have been the focal point of attacks by Russia, which launched the war with Ukraine on February 24, 2022. 

The now-ruined salt mining town has been the subject of one of the most protracted battles in the ongoing war between the two neighbors.

Kiev denies the full capture of the town by Russian forces.

106 Ukrainian soldiers released in prisoner swap with Russia 

In a statement on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's chief of staff said 106 soldiers, including eight officers, captured fighting in Bakhmut frontline had been released.

"Every one of them is a hero of our state. Many of the ones we are returning from captivity were considered missing. The relatives of these people have gone through a difficult time," said Andriy Yermak.

There is no information available as to the number of Russian soldiers freed in exchange. 

Ukraine's military intelligence claims 2,430 Ukrainians have so far been released in prisoner exchanges, including 139 civilians.

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