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U.S. Takes Control Of Russian Diplomatic Sites Amid Moscow's Angry Protest


A sign outside the entrance to the building of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco

U.S. authorities have taken control of three Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States after Russian staff complied with a 48-hour deadline to vacate the sites.

In an angry response, the Kremlin summoned a top U.S. diplomat in Moscow, handing over a note of protest and denouncing what it called an "unprecedented aggressive action" at one of the facilities.

The U.S. State Department had set a 2 p.m. September 2 deadline for the closure of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, as well as two other diplomatic buildings in Washington, D.C., and New York that are used as trade representations.

The U.S. action came in retaliation for Moscow's move in August ordering the United States to cut its diplomatic personnel in Russia to 455 by September 1, which President Vladimir Putin said meant cutting 755 personnel.

Descriptions from the Russian and U.S. sides differed on what happened at one of the U.S. sites -- a Washington trade annex -- as the local deadline passed.

Moscow claimed U.S. officials had threatened to "break down the entrance door" and that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was "clearing the premises."

The State Department denied the allegations, saying U.S. officials had conducted walkthroughs jointly with Russian staff at all three sites to confirm that personnel had departed.

"These inspections were carried out to secure and protect the facilities and to confirm the Russian government had vacated the premises," a State Department official said in an e-mail statement.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Anthony Godfrey, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to issue its protest.

The ministry claimed that the search of the Washington site could be used by U.S. special services for "anti-Russian provocations" by "planting compromised items."

Aleksandr Stadnik, the Russian trade representative in the U.S. capital, was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying that U.S. authorities had taken control of the building in northwestern Washington as of 2 p.m. local time.

He accused Washington of "vandalism" and an illegal "attack on Russian property abroad."

U.S. security officers could be seen strolling around inside the complex, which is surrounded by wrought-iron fencing, in the afternoon on September 2.

U.S. authorities have not publicly confirmed that they intend to search the premises.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on September 1 that unnamed U.S. agencies planned to conduct a search of its San Francisco Consulate and some diplomatic residences the following day in what she called a "direct threat" to Russian citizens.

The ministry on September 2 published videos on its Facebook page that it said showed FBI officials searching the consulate.

"Looking at the footage of searches at Russian diplomatic missions, I realize that this was some kind of an infernal buffoonery -- foolish, illegal, and senseless," Zakharova said on September 3.

In an apparent response to complaints from Russian officials that they were given only 48 hours to vacate homes used by diplomats and their families in San Francisco, U.S. officials said they had made "separate arrangements" to give families "sufficient time" to pack belongings and vacate apartments on the consulate grounds.

The State Department said it will control all access to the properties and take responsibility for security and maintenance at the sites.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the week said his country would study the U.S. order to close the compounds and would decide later on its response.

Relations between Moscow and Washington are severely strained over Russia's aggression in Ukraine and its alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

Those tensions raise questions about potential cooperation between the two sides to settle wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria and to pressure North Korea over its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
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