U.S., Russia set for likely U.N. row over Syria toxic gas inquiry

FILE PHOTO: A United Nations (U.N.) chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States said on Wednesday it would push the United Nations Security Council to renew within days an international inquiry into who is to blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, setting the stage for a likely showdown with Russia.

Russia has questioned the work and future of the joint inquiry by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and said it would decide whether to support extending the mandate after investigators submit their next report.

The inquiry, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), is due to report by Oct. 26 on who was responsible for an April 4 attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens of people.

“We would like to see it renewed prior to the report coming out,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told reporters.

“The Russians have made it very clear that should the report blame the Syrians suddenly they won’t have faith in the JIM. If the report doesn’t blame the Syrians then they say that they will. We can’t work like that,” Haley said.

A separate OPCW fact-finding mission determined in June that the banned nerve agent sarin had been used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which prompted the United States to launch missiles on a Syrian air base.

Haley said she would circulate a draft resolution to the 15-member Security Council later on Wednesday to renew the mandate for the JIM, which is due to expire in mid-November. It was unanimously created by the council in 2015 and renewed in 2016.

A resolution must get nine votes in favor and not be vetoed by any of the council’s five permanent members – Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France – in order to pass.

The JIM has found that Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and that Islamic State militants used mustard gas.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons during a civil war that has lasted more than six years.

Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s non-proliferation and arms control department, said on Friday there were “serious problems” with the work of the inquiry.

“In order to judge if it deserves an extension of the mandate, we need to see the report … and assess it,” Ulyanov told a briefing at the United Nations to present Moscow’s view on the “Syrian chemical dossier.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Paul Simao)

Israeli spies found Russians using Kaspersky software for hacks: media

The logo of the anti-virus firm Kaspersky Lab is seen at its headquarters in Moscow, Russia September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israeli intelligence officials spying on Russian government hackers found they were using Kaspersky Lab antivirus software that is also used by 400 million people globally, including U.S. government agencies, according to media reports on Tuesday.

The Israeli officials who had hacked into Kaspersky’s network over two years ago then warned their U.S. counterparts of the Russian intrusion, said The New York Times, which first reported the story. http://nyti.ms/2yev8Vj

That led to a decision in Washington only last month to order Kaspersky software removed from government computers.

The Washington Post also reported on Tuesday that the Israeli spies had also found in Kaspersky’s network hacking tools that could only have come from the U.S. National Security Agency. http://wapo.st/2i2clXa

After an investigation, the NSA found that those tools were in possession of the Russian government, the Post said.

And late last month, the U.S. National Intelligence Council completed a classified report that it shared with NATO allies concluding that Russia’s FSB intelligence service had “probable access” to Kaspersky customer databases and source code, the Post reported.

That access, it concluded, could help enable cyber attacks against U.S. government, commercial and industrial control networks, the Post reported.

The New York Times said the Russian operation, according to multiple people briefed on the matter, is known to have stolen classified documents from a National Security Agency employee who had improperly stored them on his home computer, which had Kaspersky antivirus software installed on it.

It is not yet publicly known what other U.S. secrets the Russian hackers may have discovered by turning the Kaspersky software into a sort of Google search for sensitive information, the Times said.

The current and former government officials who described the episode spoke about it on condition of anonymity because of classification rules, the Times said.

The newspaper said the National Security Agency and the White House declined to comment, as did the Israeli Embassy, while the Russian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

The Russian embassy in Washington last month called the ban on Kaspersky Lab software “regrettable” and said it delayed the prospects of restoring bilateral ties.

Kaspersky Lab denied to the Times any knowledge of, or involvement in, the Russian hacking. “Kaspersky Lab has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyberespionage efforts,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday.

Eugene Kaspersky, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, has repeatedly denied charges his company conducts espionage on behalf of the Russian government.

Kaspersky spokeswoman Sarah Kitsos told the Washington Post on Tuesday that “as a private company, Kaspersky Lab does not have inappropriate ties to any government, including Russia, and the only conclusion seems to be that Kaspersky Lab is caught in the middle of a geopolitical fight.” She said the company “does not possess any knowledge” of Israel’s hack, the Post said.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a multipronged digital influence operation last year in an attempt to help Donald Trump win the White House, a charge Moscow denies.

(Reporting by Eric Walsh; editing by Grant McCool)

U.S. governors, hackers, academics team up to secure elections

FILE PHOTO: A man types into a keyboard during the Def Con hacker convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on July 29, 2017. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

By Jim Finkle

(Reuters) – Hackers are joining forces with U.S. governors and academics in a new group aimed at preventing the manipulation of voter machines and computer systems to sway the outcome of future U.S. elections, a source familiar with the project said on Monday.

The anti-hacking coalition’s members include organizers of last summer’s Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, the National Governors Association and the Center for Internet Security, said the source, who asked not to be identified ahead of a formal announcement due to be made on Tuesday.

The Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank and several universities are also part of the project, the source said.

The coalition will be unveiled as Def Con organizers release a report describing vulnerabilities in voting machines and related technology that were uncovered in July.

Hackers pulled apart voting machines and election computers at the three-day event, uncovering security bugs that organizers said could be exploited by people trying to manipulate election results.

People at the Las Vegas conference learned to hack voting machines within minutes or just a few hours, according to a copy of the organizers’ report due for release on Tuesday and seen ahead of time by Reuters.

Concerns about election hacking have surged in the United States since late last year, when news surfaced that top U.S. intelligence agencies had determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered computer hacks of Democratic Party emails to help Republican Donald Trump win the Nov. 8 election.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said that Russian hackers targeted 21 U.S. state election systems in the 2016 presidential race and a small number were breached, although some states have disputed they were hacked. There was no evidence that any votes had been manipulated.

Several congressional committees are investigating and special counsel Robert Mueller is leading a separate probe into the Russia matter, including whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.

Russia has denied the accusations.

As one possible counter-measure, organizers of the Def Con hacking conference have recommended that U.S. states reduce the amount of non-American parts and software used in their voting machines, according to the group’s report.

“Via a supply chain originating overseas, voting equipment and software can be compromised at the earliest of stages in manufacturing process,” the report says.

Further details on the members of the anti-hacking coalition were not immediately available.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle in Toronto; Additional reporting by David Ingram in San Francisco; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)

Russia accuses U.S. of pretending to fight Islamic State in Syria, Iraq

Russia accuses U.S. of pretending to fight Islamic State in Syria, Iraq

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia accused the United States on Tuesday of pretending to fight Islamic State and of deliberately reducing its air strikes in Iraq to allow the group’s militants to stream into Syria to slow the Russian-backed advance of the Syrian army.

In the latest sign of rising tensions between Moscow and Washington, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the U.S.-led coalition had sharply reduced its air strikes in Iraq in September when Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, had started to retake Deir al-Zor Province.

“Everyone sees that the U.S.-led coalition is pretending to fight Islamic State, above all in Iraq, but continuing to allegedly fight Islamic State in Syria actively for some reason,” said Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry.

The result, he said, had been that militants had moved in large numbers from Iraqi border areas to Deir al-Zor where they were trying to dig in on the left bank of the River Euphrates.

“The actions of the Pentagon and the coalition demand an explanation. Is their change of tack a desire to complicate as much as they can the Syrian army’s operation, backed by the Russian air force, to take back Syrian territory to the east of the Euphrates?,” asked Konashenkov.

“Or is it an artful move to drive Islamic State terrorists out of Iraq by forcing them into Syria and into the path of the Russian air force’s pinpoint bombing?”

He said Syrian troops were in the midst of trying to push Islamic State out of the city of al-Mayadin, southeast of Deir al-Zor, but that IS tried daily to reinforce its ranks there with “foreign mercenaries” pouring in from Iraq.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dmitry Solovyov)

Turkey could look elsewhere if Russia won’t share missile technology

Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems drive during the Victory Day parade, marking the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2016.

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey could seek a deal to acquire a missile defense system with another country if Russia does not agree to joint production of a defense shield, its foreign minister was quoted as saying on Monday.

NATO member Turkey is seeking to buy the S-400 system from Russia, alarming Washington and other members of the Western alliance, and President Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara has already paid a deposit on the deal.

Turkey hopes that the deal would allow it to acquire the technology to develop its own defense system, and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in an interview with Turkish newspaper Aksam, said the two countries had agreed on joint production.

“If Russia doesn’t want to comply, we’ll make an agreement with another country,” he said when asked about reports that Russia was reluctant to share the technology. “But we haven’t got any official negative replies (from Russia)”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked in a conference call with reporters if the deal would go ahead if Moscow did not agree to joint production, said: “Contacts and negotiations at an expert level in the context of this deal are ongoing. This is all I can say for now.”

Cavusoglu said Turkey had initially hoped to reach agreement with producers from NATO allies.

Western firms which had bid for the contract included U.S. firm Raytheon, which put in an offer with its Patriot missile defense system. Franco-Italian group Eurosam, owned by the multinational European missile maker MBDA and France’s Thales, came second in the tender.

Turkey, with the second-largest army in the alliance, has enormous strategic importance for NATO, abutting as it does Syria, Iraq and Iran. But the relationship has become fractious since an attempted coup against Erdogan in July 2016 and a subsequent crackdown.

 

 

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Dominic Evans and Richard Balmforth)

 

North Korea preparing long-range missile test: RIA cites Russian lawmaker

North Korea preparing long-range missile test: RIA cites Russian lawmaker

By Jack Stubbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – North Korea is preparing to test a long-range missile which it believes can reach the west coast of the United States, a Russian lawmaker just returned from a visit to Pyongyang was quoted as saying on Friday.

Anton Morozov, a member of the Russian lower house of parliament’s international affairs committee, and two other Russian lawmakers visited Pyongyang on Oct. 2-6, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.

“They are preparing for new tests of a long-range missile. They even gave us mathematical calculations that they believe prove that their missile can hit the west coast of the United States,” RIA quoted Morozov as saying.

“As far as we understand, they intend to launch one more long-range missile in the near future. And in general, their mood is rather belligerent.”

Tensions have risen in recent weeks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs as Pyongyang has test-fired several missiles and conducted what it said was a test explosion of a hydrogen bomb as it advances toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Morozov’s comments drove up the price of U.S. Treasury bonds, as investors, worried about the prospect of new North Korean missile tests, moved into assets the market views as a safe haven in times of uncertainty.

Reuters was not able to independently verify Morozov’s account, and he did not specify which North Korean officials had given him the information about the planned test.

In Washington, a U.S. official said that there had been indications that North Korea could be preparing for a missile test on or around Oct. 10, the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers Party and a day after the Columbus Day holiday in the United States.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not disclose the type of missile that could be tested and cautioned that North Korea in the past has not staged launches despite indications that it would.

A senior CIA analyst, speaking at a conference in Washington this week, said the North Korean government likely would stage some kind of provocation on Oct. 10 but did not elaborate on what form it might take.

“There is a clarity of purpose in what (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un is doing. I don’t think he’s done,” said Yong Suk Lee, the deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, which was set up this year. “In fact, I told my own staff (that) October 10th is the Korean Workers Party founding day. That’s Tuesday in North Korea, but Monday – the Columbus Day holiday – in the United States. So stand by your phones.”

Morozov’s delegation had “high-level” meetings in Pyongyang, RIA news agency said, citing the Russian embassy in the North Korean capital.

Tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program have been running high in recent weeks since Pyongyang staged a series of missile tests, and conducted a text explosion on Sept. 3 of what it said was a hydrogen bomb.

There has also been an exchange of tough rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatens the United States. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un responded by calling Trump deranged and saying he would pay dearly for his threat.

China, North Korea’s main ally, has backed sanctions against Pyongyang and on Saturday in response to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said it backed a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons.

“China has always supported a complete and total ban on nuclear weapons, but also believes that the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament cannot be achieved overnight and must advance gradually within the existing disarmament mechanism. China is willing to work with all parties to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world,” said China’s foreign ministry.

“BELLICOSE RHETORIC”

Morozov is a member of the LDPR, a right-wing populist party. It casts itself as an opposition party, but hews close to the Kremlin line on matters of international affairs.

Describing meetings with North Korean officials, Morozov said they “displayed serious determination and bellicose rhetoric,” RIA reported.

“The situation, of course, demands the swiftest intervention of all interested states, particularly those represented in the region, in order to prevent wide-scale military action,” the agency quoted him as saying.

Russia has closer relations with Pyongyang than many other world powers, linked in part to Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and the current leader’s grand-father, having lived for a time in the Soviet Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has joined other world powers in condemning North Korea’s weapons program, but has taken a softer line than Western governments.

Putin has said that Pyongyang will not be cowed into giving up its weapons program. He has accused Washington of trying to effect regime change in North Korea, and predicted that would unleash chaos.

U.S. Treasury prices surged on the report of a possible new missile test, pulling yields lower, as investors cut risk out of their portfolios and sought the safety of Treasuries. Treasury prices move inversely to their yields.

Benchmark 10 year U.S. Treasury yields fell from the session high 2.40 percent mark <US10YT=TWEB> to 2.35 percent around midday (1600 GMT) in New York.

“It has just been risk-off buying into the long (Columbus Day) weekend … You look at the charts, it has really been a one-way trade of lower yields,” said Justin Lederer, Treasury analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald in New York.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Additional reporting by Daniel Bases in New York and Idrees Ali and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Toby Chopra and James Dalgleish)

North Korea preparing long-range missile test: RIA cites Russian lawmaker

MOSCOW (Reuters) – North Korea is preparing to test a long-range missile which it believes can reach the west coast of the United States, RIA news agency cited a Russian lawmaker as saying on Friday.

Anton Morozov, a member of the Russian Duma’s international affairs committee, and two other Russian lawmakers visited Pyongyang on Oct. 2-6, RIA reported.

“They are preparing for new tests of a long-range missile. They even gave us mathematical calculations that they believe prove that their missile can hit the west coast of the United States,” RIA quoted Morozov as saying.

“As far as we understand, they intend to launch one more long-range missile in the near future. And in general, their mood is rather belligerent.”

U.S. Treasury prices surged on the headlines, pulling yields lower, as investors cut risk out of their portfolios and sought the safety of Treasuries. Treasury prices move inversely to their yields. Benchmark 10 year U.S. Treasury notes fell from the session high 2.40 percent mark <US10YT=TWEB> to 2.35 percent around midday (1600 GMT) in New York. “It has just been risk-off buying into the long (Columbus Day) weekend … You look at the charts, it has really been a one-way trade of lower yields,” said Justin Lederer, Treasury analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald in New York.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Additional reporting by Daniel Bases in New York; Editing by Catherine Evans and James Dalgleish)

Social media executives to testify Nov. 1 about Russia and U.S. election

The Twitter application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Executives from Facebook Inc <FB.O>, Twitter Inc <TWTR.N> and Alphabet Inc’s <GOOGL.O> Google have been asked to testify about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election before a House of Representatives panel on Nov. 1, a congressional aide said on Thursday.

Executives from the companies were already due to appear the same day before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Moscow’s alleged role in the election. .

But the aide said they had also been asked to offer testimony at a public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee.

Aides to the committee’s leaders declined comment. It is House Intelligence policy not to discuss the interview schedule.

Some U.S. lawmakers, increasingly alarmed about evidence that hackers used the internet to spread fake news and otherwise influence last year’s election, have been pushing for more information about social networks in particular.

The Senate and House intelligence committees are two of the main congressional panels probing allegations that Russia sought to interfere in the U.S. election to boost Republican President Donald Trump’s chances at winning the White House, and possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia.

Moscow denies any such activity, and Trump has repeatedly dismissed allegations of collusion.

Facebook confirmed that company officials would testify. Google and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Tom Brown)

Russia throws North Korea lifeline to stymie regime change

Russia throws North Korea lifeline to stymie regime change

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is quietly boosting economic support for North Korea to try to stymie any U.S.-led push to oust Kim Jong Un as Moscow fears his fall would sap its regional clout and allow U.S. troops to deploy on Russia’s eastern border.

Though Moscow wants to try to improve battered U.S.-Russia relations in the increasingly slim hope of relief from Western sanctions over Ukraine, it remains strongly opposed to what it sees as Washington’s meddling in other countries’ affairs.

Russia is already angry about a build-up of U.S.-led NATO forces on its western borders in Europe and does not want any replication on its Asian flank.

Yet while Russia has an interest in protecting North Korea, which started life as a Soviet satellite state, it is not giving Pyongyang a free pass: it backed tougher United Nations sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear tests last month.

But Moscow is also playing a fraught double game, by quietly offering North Korea a slender lifeline to help insulate it from U.S.-led efforts to isolate it economically.

A Russian company began routing North Korean internet traffic this month, giving Pyongyang a second connection with the outside world besides China. Bilateral trade more than doubled to $31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017, due mainly to what Moscow said was higher oil product exports.

At least eight North Korean ships that left Russia with fuel cargoes this year have returned home despite officially declaring other destinations, a ploy U.S. officials say is often used to undermine sanctions against Pyongyang.

And Russia, which shares a short land border with North Korea, has also resisted U.S.-led efforts to repatriate tens of thousands of North Korean workers whose remittances help keep the country’s hard line leadership afloat.

“The Kremlin really believes the North Korean leadership should get additional assurances and confidence that the United States is not in the regime change business,” Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Reuters.

“The prospect of regime change is a serious concern. The Kremlin understands that (U.S. President Donald) Trump is unpredictable. They felt more secure with Barack Obama that he would not take any action that would explode the situation, but with Trump they don’t know.”

Trump, who mocks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission, told the United Nations General Assembly last month he would “totally destroy” the country if necessary.

He has also said Kim Jong Un and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they made good on a threat to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

STRATEGIC BORDER

To be sure, Beijing’s economic ties to Pyongyang still dwarf Moscow’s and China remains a more powerful player in the unfolding nuclear crisis. But while Beijing is cutting back trade as it toughens its line on its neighbor’s ballistic missile and nuclear program, Russia is increasing its support.

People familiar with elements of Kremlin thinking say that is because Russia flatly opposes regime change in North Korea.

Russian politicians have repeatedly accused the United States of plotting so-called color revolutions across the former Soviet Union and any U.S. talk of unseating any leader for whatever reason is politically toxic in Moscow.

Russia’s joint military exercises with neighboring Belarus last month gamed a scenario where Russian forces put down a Western-backed attempt for part of Belarus to break away.

With Russia due to hold a presidential election in March, politicians are again starting to fret about Western meddling.

In 2011, President Vladimir Putin accused then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of trying to stir up unrest in Russia and he has made clear that he wants the United States to leave Kim Jong Un alone.

While condemning Pyongyang for what he called provocative nuclear tests, Putin told a forum last month in the eastern Russian port of Vladivostok that he understood North Korea’s security concerns about the United States and South Korea.

Vladivostok, a strategic port city of 600,000 people and headquarters to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, is only about 100 km (60 miles) from Russia’s border with North Korea.

Russia would be fiercely opposed to any U.S. forces deploying nearby in a reunited Korea.

“(The North Koreans) know exactly how the situation developed in Iraq,” Putin told the economic forum, saying Washington had used the false pretext that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction to destroy the country and its leadership.

“They know all that and see the possession of nuclear weapons and missile technology as their only form of self-defense. Do you think they’re going to give that up?”

Analysts say Russia’s view is that North Korea’s transformation into a nuclear state, though incomplete, is permanent and irreversible and the best the West can hope for is for Pyongyang to freeze elements of its program.

NOTHING PERSONAL

Kortunov, the think-tank chief close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, said he did not think the Kremlin’s defense of Kim Jong Un was based on any personal affection or support for North Korea’s leadership, likening Moscow’s pragmatic backing to that it has given Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow’s position was motivated by a belief the status quo made Russia a powerful geopolitical player in the crisis because of its close ties to Pyongyang, Kortunov said, just as Russia’s support for Assad has gifted it greater Middle East clout.

He said Moscow knew it would lose regional leverage if Kim Jong Un fell, much as its Middle East influence was threatened when Islamist militants looked like they might overthrow Assad in 2015.

“It’s a very delicate balancing act,” said Kortunov.

“On the one hand, Russia doesn’t want to deviate from the line of its partners and mostly from China’s position on North Korea which is getting tougher. But on the other hand, politicians in Moscow understand that the current situation and level of interaction between Moscow and Pyongyang puts Russia in a league of its own compared to China.”

If the United States were to remove Kim Jong Un by force, he said Russia could face a refugee and humanitarian crisis on its border, while the weapons and technology Pyongyang is developing could fall into even more dangerous non-state hands.

So despite Russia giving lukewarm backing to tighter sanctions on Pyongyang, Putin wants to help its economy grow and is advocating bringing it into joint projects with other countries in the region.

“We need to gradually integrate North Korea into regional cooperation,” Putin told the Vladivostok summit last month.

(Editing by David Clarke)

Russia threatens retaliation over U.S. ‘break-in’ at San Francisco consulate

FILE PHOTO: The Consulate General of Russia is seen in San Francisco, California, U.S. on September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. officials broke into residences at Russia’s consulate in San Francisco, the foreign ministry in Moscow said, threatening retaliation over what it called a hostile and illegal act.

Russian staff had left the consulate last month, after Washington ordered Moscow to vacate some of its diplomatic properties, part of a series of tit-for-tat actions during a thorny phase in bilateral relations.

Since then, U.S. officials had occupied administrative parts of the compound but on Monday they entered residential areas that the departing staff had locked, the ministry said in a statement late on Monday.

“Despite our warnings, the U.S. authorities did not listen to reason and did not give up their illegal intentions,” it said.

“…We reserve the right to respond. The principle of reciprocity has always been and remains the cornerstone of diplomacy.”

Footage aired repeatedly on Russian state television showed

what the broadcaster said were U.S. officials breaking locks that had sealed off parts of the compound and entering the buildings.

The “intruders” had taken over the whole premises including the consul general’s residence, the ministry said.

“Therefore, we understand that Americans, breaking into our diplomatic buildings, have de facto agreed that their missions in Russia may be treated likewise.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin last month accused Washington of “boorish” treatment of Russia’s diplomatic premises on U.S. soil, ordering the foreign ministry to take legal action over alleged violations of Russia’s property rights.

The tit-for-tat began late last year when former U.S. president Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for alleged Russian meddling in the election that took Donald Trump to the White House.

Trump took office in January, saying he wanted to improve ties with Russia, while Putin also spoke favorably of Trump.

But the allegations of interference in the vote, which Moscow has denied, have persisted as an investigation by U.S. authorities has widened.

In July, Moscow ordered the United States to cut the number of its diplomatic and technical staff working in Russia by around 60 percent, to 455.

(This story has been refiled to fix typographical error in headline)

(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by John Stonestreet)