Three buses with diplomatic number plates left the Russian embassy in London on Tuesday, as the 23 officials expelled by the Prime Minister over the Salisbury nerve agent attack began their journeys back to Moscow.
The buses left the embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens shortly after 10.30am for Stansted Airport in Essex, before departing this afternoon.
Crowds of embassy staff were pictured waving the diplomats goodbye in what was an emotional farewell for some.
One woman could be seen filming the media which had gathered outside from the front seat of a vehicle, as children could be seen excitedly looking out of the window of a coach as it pulled on to the main road. One diplomat held a pet in a cage.
Embassy staff had earlier attended a farewell reception hosted by ambassador Alexander Yakovenko.
Removal vans were also seen arriving at the embassy today.
As the diplomats leave London in the biggest tit-for-tat expulsions since Margaret Thatcher ordered Soviet spies to leave in 1985, Theresa May was due to chair a National Security Council meeting on the crisis.
May and other European Union leaders are due to discuss the poisoning at a summit on Thursday.
The Prime Minister last Wednesday ordered the diplomats to leave Britain after Russia ignored a request for information over the poisoning of former spy, Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, on March 4.
Declaring the diplomats as “undeclared intelligence officers”, May set a deadline of one week, which ends tomorrow.
The father and daughter remain in a critical condition in hospital following their exposure to the lethal nerve agent, Novichok. A British policeman who was also poisoned is in a serious but stable condition.
Russian news agency, TASS, said the diplomats and their families will travel to Moscow on a special flight operated by its national airline, Aeroflot.
It said in total around 80 people would be on the flight.
Days after May’s expulsion announcement, Russia responded by saying it would expel 23 British diplomats and threatened possible “further retaliatory measures”.
The British Council, which promotes British culture internationally, was also closed in Russia, and the country withdrew permission for a British consulate to open in St Petersburg.
Russia says it knows nothing about the poisoning and has repeatedly asked Britain to supply a sample of the nerve agent that was used against Skripal.
The US and European powers say they share Britain’s belief that Russia is culpable for the poisoning though they have not given any indication of what they will do about it.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said last week that it was overwhelmingly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself made the decision to use the toxin against Skripal.
Putin, who was elected for a fourth term in the Kremlin on Sunday, said Russia had been falsely accused.
“As for the tragedy that you mentioned, I found out about it from the media. The first thing that entered my head was that if it had been a military-grade nerve agent, the people would have died on the spot,” Putin told reporters on Sunday.
“Secondly, Russia does not have such (nerve) agents. We destroyed all our chemical weapons under the supervision of international organisations, and we did it first, unlike some of our partners who promised to do it, but unfortunately did not keep their promises,” Putin said.
A Cold War-era scientist acknowledged on Tuesday he had helped create the nerve agent, contradicting Moscow’s insistence that neither Russia nor the Soviet Union ever had such a program.
However, Professor Leonid Rink told the RIA news agency that the attack did not look like Moscow’s work because Skripal and his daughter had not died immediately.
“It’s hard to believe that the Russians were involved, given that all of those caught up in the incident are still alive,” he said. “Such outrageous incompetence by the alleged (Russian) spies would have simply been laughable and unacceptable.”
Inspectors from the world’s chemical weapons watchdog have begun examining the poison used in the attack.