Russian diplomats vacate three properties on US orders

People stop to watch black smoke coming from the roof of the Consulate General of Russia on Sept. 1, 2017, in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Fire Department says acrid, black smoke seen pouring from a chimney at the Russian consulate in San Francisco was apparently from a fire burning in a fireplace. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Updated 03 September 2017

Russian diplomats vacate three properties on US orders

SAN FRANCISCO, US: Russian diplomats worked to vacate three properties in the United States on Saturday including the six-story consulate in San Francisco, complying with a US order issued in retaliation for Moscow cutting the American diplomatic presence in Russia.
Staff at the San Francisco consulate were seen moving equipment, furniture and small items from the building into minivans and driving away, before coming back for more 20 to 30 minutes later. A group of men in plainclothes and suits were seen on the roof of the consulate looking around, some wearing rubber gloves.
The closure ordered by the Trump administration of the consulate in San Francisco and two buildings housing Russian trade missions in Washington and New York was the latest in tit-for-tat measures between the two countries that have helped plunge relations to a new post-Cold War low.
The United States ordered the Russians to shutter their operations in the buildings by Saturday.
In July, the Kremlin ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia by more than half, to 455 people, to match the number of Russian diplomats in the United States, after the US Congress overwhelmingly approved new sanctions against Russia.
Those US sanctions were imposed as punishment for what US intelligence agencies concluded was Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election as well as Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.
As of early Saturday afternoon, the Russian flag was still seen atop the consulate in San Francisco. Someone opened a window above the main entrance and wedged a small Russian flag there. A small contingent of news media and curious passersby gathered below the building.
Images posted on social media on Friday showed black smoke billowing from a chimney of the consulate, on the hottest day in San Francisco’s recorded history. The smoke prompted speculation that diplomatic staff inside the consulate were burning sensitive documents.
Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said the fire was part of a “mothballing.”
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday it has summoned a US diplomat in Moscow to protest over plans to conduct searches in Russia’s trade mission complex in Washington, another of the buildings ordered closed.
Images posted on social media on Friday showed smoke and flames visible outside the trade mission building in Washington.


Macron backs month of Brexit talks as Johnson visits

Updated 22 August 2019

Macron backs month of Brexit talks as Johnson visits

  • Macron has rejected Johnson’s calls to scrap a key arrangement regarding Ireland
  • The EU argues the backstop is necessary to avoid the re-emergence of checkpoints in Ireland

PARIS: French leader Emmanuel Macron backed the idea of a month of further talks to find a solution to Brexit while ruling out major compromises as he met British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for talks on Thursday.
Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, Macron supported allowing another 30 days to find a solution to the vexed issue of the Irish border which has bedevilled negotiations since 2017.
“We need to try to have a useful month,” Macron said alongside Johnson who insisted that solutions were “readily available” to prevent checkpoints returning in divided Ireland.
But Macron, who admitted he had a reputation as the “hardest in the gang” on Brexit, has rejected Johnson’s calls to scrap a key arrangement for Ireland negotiated between the EU and former British premier Theresa May.
At stake is the so-called “backstop,” which is a provision guaranteeing that border checks will not return between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland which is part of Britain.
Johnson considers the backstop to be “anti-democratic” and an affront to British sovereignty because it will require London to keep its regulations aligned with the EU during a transition exit period.
“The technical solutions are readily available (to avoid checkpoints) and they have been discussed at great length,” Johnson said. “You can have trusted trader schemes, you can have electronic pre-clearing.”
The EU argues the backstop is necessary to avoid the re-emergence of checkpoints which could lead to a return of fighting on the divided island where anti-British violence has claimed thousands of lives.
“I want to be very clear. In the coming month, we will not find a new withdrawal agreement that is far from the fundamentals,” Macron said at the Elysee palace in central Paris.
Since Johnson’s ascent to power last month, the chances of a “no deal” Brexit on October 31 have risen, which economists see as likely to wreak economic damage on Britain and the EU.
“The EU and member states need to take the possibility of a ‘no deal’ outcome much more seriously than before,” a senior EU official told reporters in Brussels on Thursday on condition of anonymity.
A French official said on Wednesday that this was becoming the “most likely” scenario.
The Paris visit was the second leg of Johnson’s first foreign trip as prime minister.
On Wednesday, he was in Berlin for talks with Merkel who appeared to offer a glimmer of hope by saying Britain should try to find a breakthrough to the issue over the next month.
“I want a deal,” Johnson told Macron. “I think we can get a deal and a good deal.”
He added that he had been “powerfully encouraged” by his talks with Merkel. “I admire that ‘can do’ spirit that she seemed to have.”
But many Brexit watchers see Merkel’s remarks as fitting a pattern in which she has often been more conciliatory in public about Brexit than Macron, whose abrasive remarks have caused anger in London in the past.
“There is not the width of cigarette paper between Paris and Berlin on these issues,” a senior aide to Macron said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
The EU official in Brussels added that the EU was “a little concerned based on what we heard yesterday (in Berlin).”
“We are waiting for new facts, workable ideas,” the official added.
Johnson, who has deployed his French language skills to charm diplomats in Paris before, has staked his leadership on withdrawing Britain from the EU by the current deadline of October 31 — “do or die.”
Some analysts see a risk of relations between Macron and Johnson becoming stormy in public, which could lead to a blame game about a “no deal” Brexit.
Johnson reportedly once called the French “turds” over their stance on Brexit during his time as foreign secretary — remarks he later said he could not recall.
But Macron pre-empted any attempt to deflect blame onto the European side during a press conference on Wednesday before Johnson’s arrival.
“It will be the responsibility of the British government, always, because firstly it was the British people that decided Brexit, and the British government has the possibility up to the last second to revoke Article 50,” he said.
Article 50 is the legal mechanism used by EU members states to withdraw from the bloc which was triggered by Britain in March 2017.
At the weekend, Macron, Merkel and Johnson will meet US President Donald Trump, a vocal supporter of both Brexit and Johnson, at a G7 summit in the French seaside resort of Biarritz.