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Europe steps up pressure on Russia over spy attack

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[BRUSSELS] European countries are set to take further steps to punish Russia over the poisoning of a former spy in England, officials said Friday, as diplomatic pressure builds on Moscow over the nerve agent attack.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday agreed to recall the bloc's ambassador from Moscow over the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury.

French president Emmanuel Macron said the poisoning with the Soviet-made "Novichok" agent was an "attack on European sovereignty", after EU leaders unanimously backed London's assessment that Moscow was to blame.

A number of member states are considering following Britain's lead and expelling Russian intelligence agents posing as diplomats, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying further coordinated actions were "necessary" to respond to the attack.

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The question of whether to expel Russian diplomats will be left to individual member states and EU President Donald Tusk said action was expected as early as Monday.

But divisions remain over how far to go, with Austria already ruling out expelling diplomats, and former Polish PM Tusk said it was not clear how many states would join the expulsions.

"More than one but I don't think that it will be the whole group," Mr Tusk said.

Mr Macron told a joint news conference with Ms Merkel after a summit in Brussels that the March 4 incident - which Russia denies responsibility for - was "a serious challenge to our security and as an attack on European sovereignty".

"It calls for a coordinated, determined response from the European Union and its member states," the French leader said.

'Extraordinary measure'

Mrs May briefed other EU leaders on the probe into the Salisbury attack over a summit dinner on Thursday.

She managed to overcome resistance from countries like Greece and Italy who were reluctant to put their close Kremlin ties in jeopardy to persuade them to back Britain's conclusion that Moscow was to blame.

Ms Merkel said Mrs May had shared "certain findings" which left little doubt Moscow was behind the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.

"We believe that the analyses are already very well-founded and this has not been questioned by anyone," Ms Merkel said.

"We agreed - Germany and France at least - that such reactions are still necessary in addition to recalling the ambassador." European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said the recall of the ambassador was an "extraordinary measure" never before taken by the bloc.

The leaders of former Soviet bloc EU states the Czech Republic and Lithuania, as well as Denmark and Ireland, have said they were considering further unilateral steps, including expelling diplomats.

Latvia was the first to commit explicitly to expelling Russians, saying it expected to make an official announcement on Monday.

"One or several Russians involved in espionage activities, while living in Latvia with diplomatic passports, will be expelled from our country," foreign ministry spokesman Gints Jegermanis told AFP.

The Baltic states - annexed for decades by the Soviet Union until the fall of communism - often take a tough line on Russia, which they say subjects them to near-daily destabilisng cyber and disinformation attacks.

The head of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament suggested an alternative tactic to expelling diplomats, saying the EU should consider ending the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline project.

AFP