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New German foreign minister criticizes Russian response to chemical attack

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s new foreign minister, Heiko Maas, criticized Russia on Wednesday over its stance towards a nerve agent attack in England for which the British government has blamed Moscow and he said it could not go unpunished.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas arrives for the first cabinet meeting in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

In his first speech as foreign minister shortly after taking up the post in Germany’s new coalition government, Maas also criticized Russia’s behavior in Ukraine but said he still hoped to improve relations with Moscow through dialogue.

“We take the assessment of the British government (on the chemical attack) seriously and it is disappointing that Russia seems not to be willing to contribute to clearing up (this case),” Maas told foreign ministry staff and reporters.

“Moscow should be ready to be transparent... And it is clear this cannot go without consequences,” he said, adding that Germany would stay in close contact with its NATO ally Britain on the matter.

“The perpetrators must be held accountable... We can fully understand why Britain had to react to this (attack).”

Russia denies any involvement in the attack on Russian ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. They were found unconscious on March 4 on a bench in the English city of Salisbury and remain in a critical condition in hospital.

Prime Minister Theresa May announced earlier on Wednesday that Britain would kick out 23 Russian diplomats, the biggest expulsion since the Cold War, over the attack, which she blamed squarely on President Vladimir Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western leaders have already condemned the attack and backed Britain’s demands that Russia cooperate with the investigation.

Maas said German foreign policy had had to adapt to a situation in which Russia increasingly defined itself as an antagonist to Western countries.

“We continue to disapprove of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the ongoing aggression against Ukraine,” he said, referring to a four-year conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev’s forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Maas, who was speaking after lawmakers re-elected Merkel as chancellor for a fourth, and likely final, term, said Germany must live up to its international responsibilities, and he vowed not to avoid confronting difficult issues.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is facing calls to take a more active approach on issues ranging from euro zone reforms to the threat of U.S. trade sanctions and a more assertive Russia.

Maas was due to hold talks in Paris later on Wednesday with his French counterpart.

Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Madeline Chambers,; writing by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Gareth Jones