- Associated Press - Monday, March 22, 2021

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) - Two Russian diplomats accused by Bulgarian prosecutors of espionage will be expelled from the country, Bulgaria’s foreign ministry announced Monday.

The ministry said that the Russian Embassy in the capital, Sofia, has been notified that the diplomats have to leave Bulgaria within 72 hours.

Earlier on Monday, prosecutors said in a statement that a pre-trial investigation established that “two Russian citizens with diplomatic immunity have carried out illegal intelligence activities.”

The expulsions are linked to a raid last week that saw authorities detain six people and charge them with delivering classified NATO-linked information to the Russian embassy in Sofia. Later, one of them offered to cooperate with the authorities and was released on bail.

The Sofia Military Court on Monday extended the pretrial detention of the five suspects still in custody. All are current and former Bulgarian military officials.

Prosecution spokeswoman Siika Mileva said the alleged ringleader had graduated from the intelligence school in Moscow run by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency.

The operation sparked immediate reactions at home and abroad.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov called on Russia to stop spying on his country.

Last year, Bulgaria expelled five Russian diplomats whom prosecutors had accused of spying. Among them was Russia’s military attaché, who had allegedly been coordinating the military intelligence spy network in Bulgaria.

“Once again it could be necessary to declare Russian diplomats as unwanted,” Borisov said over the weekend.

“Friendship is friendship, but our Euro-Atlantic partnership is an unavoidable factor,” he added.

The Balkan country has close historical links with Russia and continues to be dependent on Moscow’s energy supplies.

Russia’s embassy was quick to brush off the spying allegations, calling them part of “incessant attempts to drive a wedge in the Russian-Bulgarian dialogue and again demonize our country.”

The United States and Britain defended on Saturday their NATO partner Bulgaria against what they called “malign activities” and “hostile actions” by Russia.

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