Russian diplomats leave retreats in the US


Russian diplomats have left two US countryside holiday retreats after being ordered out by President Barack Obama, who claims the sites are linked to spying.

In small convoys of vehicles, Russians have departed two countryside holiday retreats outside Washington DC and New York City without fanfare, ordered out by US President Barack Obama who claims the premises are linked to spying.

The Russians were given until noon local time on Friday to vacate the compounds in Centreville, Maryland, and in Upper Brookville on Long Island in New York state. By early afternoon, trucks, buses and black sedans with diplomatic licence plates had left.

"The premises have been vacated and it's under control of the government," Elliot Conway, the mayor of Upper Brookville, told reporters soon after noon, when a total of six vehicles had driven away from the Russian compound there.

"They've been quiet neighbours," Conway said, adding he had never met anyone who lived at the estate set in rolling countryside about 40km from Manhattan.

In Maryland, about a dozen vehicles left the sprawling waterfront estate, watched by officials from the US State Department. Some passengers smiled and waved as they rode away from the compound, which is located in a wooded farm area with winding narrow roads.

Obama abruptly ordered the closures on Thursday, saying the compounds had been "used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes".

It was part of his response, including the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies, to what US officials have called cyber interference by Moscow in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. The Kremlin has denied the hacking allegations.

The closures echoed the old days of tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

When Soviet officials bought the compound in Centreville to be used as a country retreat for diplomats posted to the US capital, it rattled residents of the bayside Maryland town. It was 1972, in the deep chill of the Cold War.

People were suspicious of the Soviets and "thought they were spies ... It was the folklore of Centreville," said Joe Dawkins, who works locally in agriculture.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation kept an office in Centreville for a time, residents said. The FBI office closed years ago, they said, and over time neighbours in this community of about 4500 people got used to Russian-accented officials shopping at the liquor store, hunting nearby and dining at a popular Irish pub, O'Shucks.

The Russian government maintained the compound after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Property records show the Russian government owns an estate on Town Point Lane in Centreville valued at $US8 million ($A11 million) for tax purposes.

Neighbours said the Russians were a lively bunch, seen water-skiing in summer and known for throwing a large, annual Labour Day party. Each May, to celebrate Russia's Victory Day, marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, the compound hosts a soccer tournament for diplomats from former Soviet republics.

George Sigler, a Centreville councilman, said he had visited the compound several times for a semi-regular regatta held jointly by the Russians and a sailing club in nearby Annapolis. There, Sigler said, he socialised with diplomats, including a former Russian ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov.

"We were all talking the same language, they were all my age," said Sigler, a former marine who at one point in his service defended US embassy compounds. "All of us drank way too much vodka."

Once, just hours after Sigler admired the quality of the vodka served at the compound, Ushakov had a bottle of it dropped off at the town hall, Sigler said.

A senior US law enforcement official said the US government had long known the compound was used by Russia for intelligence operations, but had not previously seen it as an immediate threat.

In Centreville, from the dock of a vacation house he and his wife stay in, Austin Haase, 31, has a clear view of the Russian estate. In summers past, he saw Russians enjoying water sports, Haase said.

Haase said he doubted the place was used for intelligence gathering. "It's more a slap in the face (to the Russians), like they're taking away their toys," he said.

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, accused the Obama administration of targeting Russian diplomats' children by closing compounds that he said would be used by families over the Christmas and New Year school holidays.

"It's quite scandalous that they chose to go after our kids, you know? They know full well that those two facilities ... they're vacation facilities for our kids. And this is Christmas time," Churkin told reporters when asked about the compounds.

Source AAP

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