Washington, 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department says four Russian diplomats it believes are spies have been told to leave the United States immediately. Russia has denounced the decision as having "no basis." The statement comes amid unconfirmed reports that more than 40 other Russian diplomats are being told they will have to leave the U.S. over the next few months in response to the recent discovery in Washington of an American spy for Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov denounced the U.S. decision to expel the Russians, saying "Washington's decision concerning a group of Russian diplomats can only cause us to deplore it. There was and is no basis for such a step."
In a statement, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the four Russians being expelled are what he called intelligence officers. He said they are implicated in the investigation of a senior U.S. law enforcement official, Robert Hanssen, who is awaiting trial on charges of spying for the former Soviet Union and for Russia over a period of 15 years.
U.S. President George W. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, says Russian diplomats are being expelled from the U.S. because their presence is not representative of the kind of relations Washington wants to have with Moscow.
Rice said today that what she called the Russian military presence in the U.S. has been on Washington's agenda for several years.
Rice said she does not think the decision to expel as many as 51 Russian officials will hurt relations between the U.S. and Russia.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush signed off on the action and was involved in the decision to oust the Russians.