US strips accreditation of 5 Russian honorary consuls

Washington (AFP) - Washington has stripped five Russian honorary consuls of their accreditation in response to the harassment of its own staff in Russia, the State Department said Friday.

"We are prepared to take further appropriate measures if there are additional efforts to impede our diplomatic and consular activities in Russia," spokesman Mark Toner warned.

Russia's foreign ministry expressed outrage at the move against the consuls -- US nationals who represent Moscow in California, Florida, Minnesota, Puerto Rico and Utah.

Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused US "security services" of carrying out "provocations against employees of Russian diplomatic missions, and not only in the United States."

"The decision on the honorary consuls continues the Barack Obama administration's policy aimed at curbing ties with our country," she alleged, in a statement.

The State Department said formal diplomatic relations would not be hurt by Washington's tit-for-tat move, which it said followed similar action by Moscow against US interests.

"This action is being taken in response to continued Russian interference with our diplomatic and consular operations in Russia, including, but not limited to, widespread harassment of our personnel, as well as the forced closure of the American Center in Moscow and 28 American Spaces throughout Russia," Toner said.

"This does not affect Russia's formal diplomatic operations, including its embassy, consulates general or its cultural center in Washington."

The American Center in Moscow was closed in September last year after acting for 22 years as a library and a cultural and meeting space for Russians and US expats.

US officials saw the Russian move as part of a broader crackdown by President Vladimir Putin's government on official foreign missions and western-backed NGOs.

Russia commentators have often accused US missions of stirring opposition sentiment and even so-called "color revolutions" in former Soviet republics.

Ties between the Cold War rivals are at a low ebb following Russia's annexation of Crimea and interventions in the conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine.

But Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov maintain regular contact and are working together to push for a negotiated settlement in Syria.

Honorary consuls are not diplomats and do not typically enjoy immunity from prosecution, but are accredited to represent a government and its citizens abroad.

The State Department said five of the six Russian honorary consuls present in the United States had lost their status.

In Moscow, Zakharova expressed Russia's "sincere gratitude to the US nationals who have served worthily as Russian honorary consuls for many years."

"We expect that sooner or later common sense will prevail in Washington and honorary consuls will be able to resume their useful and highly sought-after work," she added.