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Russia accuses three US embassy staff of theft, wants their immunity lifted

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The building of the United States's Embassy in Novinsky Boulevard in central Moscow, Russia. (File photo by AP)

The Russian foreign ministry has called on the US embassy in Moscow to lift the diplomatic immunity of three of its staff suspected of stealing personal belongings from a Russian citizen.

The three employees would have to leave Russia immediately if the United States refuses to lift their diplomatic immunity, the Interfax news agency cited the ministry as saying on Friday.

According to Interfax, three US citizens from the Moscow embassy under the influence of alcohol stole a backpack from a Russian man in a bar in central Moscow.

The Moscow police identified the three men as servicemen of the US Marine Corps aged 21 to 26, the news agency reported, citing police spokesman Vladimir Vasenin.

The Russian state-owned news agency Tass said the alleged theft occurred on Sept. 18 and reported that the Interior Ministry estimated the value of the stolen items at just over $200.

A criminal case has been launched over the incident and the possible charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

Moscow’s move comes days after NATO expelled eight members of Russia’s delegation to the military alliance over allegations that those supposed diplomats were acting as spies for the Kremlin.

The relationship between NATO and Russia is at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War and Moscow slams the decision for undermining the normalization of ties between the US-led military alliance and the Kremlin.

The US Mission to NATO declined to comment on the reasons behind the expulsion, but Jeff Adler, a spokesperson for the US Mission to NATO, said, “It was based on intelligence, and we don’t discuss intelligence matters.”

The alliance also reduced the number of Russian representatives that can receive accreditation from NATO from 20 to 10, the NATO official said.

Tensions are at an all-time high between Moscow and Washington over a range of issues, including claims of meddling in US elections and Russia's human rights record.

Earlier this week a group of US Democratic and Republican senators have called on President Joe Biden to expel up to 300 Russian diplomats from the United States if Moscow did not issue more visas for Americans to represent Washington in Russia.

“Russia must issue enough visas to approach parity between the number of American diplomats serving in Russia and the number of Russian diplomats serving in the United States,” they said.

Russia's foreign ministry in response has said Moscow did not have that number of diplomats in Washington and that the proposal appeared to include diplomatic staff at Russia’s mission at the United Nations.

Russian officials said if that proposal were implemented, Russia would force the closure of the US Embassy in Moscow.

The row is the latest in a series of events occurred between two countries over embassy staffing. In March, the United States imposed sanctions against seven Russian officials around President Vladimir Putin, blocking their access to various US assets.

In April, Russia ordered 10 American diplomats to leave the country after the United States expelled Russian diplomats and imposed more sanctions on several dozen Russian individuals and companies.

At the time, relations between the two world powers had deteriorated because Biden had said he believed Putin is a “killer.”

In response, Moscow advised US Ambassador John Sullivan to go to Washington for consultations and recalled its own ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov.

Russia in August banned the US embassy in Moscow from retaining, hiring or contracting Russian or third-country nationals, except for guards, forcing the mission to let go 182 employees and dozens of contractors.

Relations remain frosty, howsoever, two countries have deep-seated differences over many issues such as the situation in Ukraine, arms control, human rights, and cyber security, but recently Putin and Biden met in a high-profile summit in June at which they agreed it was vital to keep talking despite the differences that divide them.

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