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Russia Demands Return Of 'Seized' Diplomatic Facilities In U.S.

The Russian chancery annex in Washington, D.C., one of three diplomatic facilities that the Trump administration has ordered closed.
The Russian chancery annex in Washington, D.C., one of three diplomatic facilities that the Trump administration has ordered closed.

Russia is urging the United States to return Russian diplomatic facilities it says U.S. authorities have "seized" in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., calling it an "openly hostile act."

"We urge the U.S. authorities to come to their senses and to immediately return the Russian diplomatic facilities," the Russian Foreign Ministry said on September 3. "Otherwise the U.S.A. will bear the total blame for the ongoing degradation of the relations between our countries."

The U.S. administration has not yet responded.

The statement said U.S. authorities on September 2 "seized the buildings of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco and the Trade Representation in Washington," which it said "are the property of Russia and have a diplomatic immunity."

"The U.S. special services supported by armed police are in control of the seized buildings," it said.

Russian representatives were also being "denied access to the rented premises of the Trade Representation in New York," it added.

U.S. authorities took control of the three diplomatic facilities after Russian staff complied with a 48-hour deadline to vacate the sites by 2 p.m. on September 2.

The U.S. State Department set the deadline after Moscow ordered the United States in August to cut its diplomatic personnel in Russia to 455 by September 1, which President Vladimir Putin said meant cutting 755 personnel, in retaliation for new U.S. sanctions against Moscow over Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

The State Department said it will control all access to the San Francisco Consulate as well as two other diplomatic buildings in Washington and New York, and take responsibility for security and maintenance at the sites.

Descriptions from the Russian and U.S. sides differed on what happened at one of the U.S. sites -- the 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 Foreign Ministry summoned Anthony Godfrey, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to issue its protest at what it called an "unprecedented aggressive action" at the facility.

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.

The Russian Foreign 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 accusing 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.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last 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 actions 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.

The United States has imposed sanctions against Russia following its illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean region in March 2014 and its backing of separatists in the country's east in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and TASS