California wildfires force evacuations, cause power outages

California wildfires force evacuations, cause power outages
By Subrat Patnaik and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – California emergency officials on Thursday ordered hundreds of people to evacuate a historic wine country town north of San Francisco, and nearly 200,000 were without power, as a growing wildfire spread in Sonoma County.

Driven by strong winds, the Kincade fire engulfed some 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) by Thursday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The Sonoma County Sheriff issued a mandatory evacuation order for the town of Geyserville, home to almost 900 people.

A video posted on social media by a local reporter showed a glowing blaze against the still-dark backdrop of an early morning sky and a strong wind buffeting into the microphone.

Large parts of California were under red-flag alerts this week, suggesting a heightened risk of fire, amid high temperatures and powerful winds, officials said.

About 185,000 customers were without power in the state on Thursday morning, according to poweroutage.us.

More than half a million homes and businesses in the state could lose power this week as utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric <PCG.N> and Southern California Edison <SCE_pe.A>, cut off electricity as a preventive measure against wildfires.

Over 308,000 customers in seven counties, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura in southern California, were under consideration for Public Safety Power Shutoffs, Southern California Edison said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Marc Chenard said the worst of the winds would arrive later in the day and into Friday.

“It looks like at its worst, southern California will see wind gusts of 55 miles per hour (89 kph). Down in some of the coastal areas, the winds could reach 75 miles per hour (121 kph) later today,” he said.

Power lines could be knocked down, potentially igniting fires among arid trees and vegetation, according to earlier forecasts.

Bankrupt Californian power producer PG&E cut off electricity to more than 730,000 homes and workplaces in northern California earlier this month to try to reduce the risk of wildfires amid extremely windy and dry weather.

Chenard added that northern California could experience dangerous wind gusts of up to 45 mph.

“This is not going to abate until at least this weekend,” he said.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Rich McKay in Atlanta, additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

Apple pulls police-tracking app used by Hong Kong protesters after consulting authorities

By Stephen Nellis and John Ruwitch

SAN FRANCISCO/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Apple Inc has removed an app that helped Hong Kong protesters track police movements, saying it was used to ambush law enforcement – a move that follows sharp criticism of the U.S. tech giant by a Chinese state newspaper for allowing the software.

The decision to bar the HKmap.live app, which crowdsources the locations of both police and protesters, from its app store plunges Apple into the increasingly fraught political tension between China and the protesters that has also ensnared other U.S. and Hong Kong businesses.

Apple had only just last week approved the app after rejecting it earlier this month. The Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper on Tuesday called the app “poisonous” and decried what it said was Apple’s complicity in helping the Hong Kong protesters.

Apple said in a statement on Wednesday it had begun an immediate investigation after “many concerned customers in Hong Kong” contacted the company about the app and Apple found it had endangered law enforcement and residents.

“The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement,” it said.

Apple did not comment beyond its statement. The company also removed BackupHK, a separate app that served as a mirror of the HKmap.live app.

On Twitter, an account believed to be owned by the HKmap.live app’s developer said it disagreed with Apple’s decision and there was no evidence to support the Hong Kong police’s claims via Apple that the app had been used in ambushes.

“The majority of user review(s) in App Store … suggest HKmap IMPROVED public safety, not the opposite,” it said.

The app consolidates content from public posts on social networks and moderators delete content that solicited criminal activity and would ban repeated attempts to post such content in the app, it added.

Neither China’s foreign ministry nor the information office of the State Council had an immediate comment when asked about the HKmap.live app removal. Hong Kong police also had no immediate comment.

In a separate move, Apple also removed the Quartz news app from its App Store in China because Chinese authorities said the app violated local laws.

Quartz Chief Executive Zach Seward told technology publication The Verge in a statement: “We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet, and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world.”

ANGER IN HONG KONG

The People’s Daily newspaper on Tuesday blasted Apple, saying it did not have a sense of right and wrong, and ignored the truth. Making the app available on Apple’s Hong Kong App Store at this time was “opening the door” to violent protesters in the former British colony, the newspaper wrote.

The HKmap.live app was taken down from Apple’s app store globally on Wednesday but continued to work for users who had previously downloaded it in Hong Kong, Reuters found. A web version was also still viewable on iPhones.

Word of the its removal spread quickly in Hong Kong, where residents have been campaigning for months in sometimes violent demonstrations – first to protest a now-withdrawn extradition bill and currently in a broader push for democratic rights.

“Does the entire world have to suck up to the garbage Communist Party?” one commentator called Yip Lou Jie said in an online forum, LIHKG, which is used by protesters in Hong Kong.

But Simon Young, associate dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, said Apple seemed to have a case given the circumstances.

“It sounds like they are being responsible. To do nothing when it’s being used for a specific purpose that actually facilitates these protests, to do nothing would be rather irresponsible,” he said.

Apple’s action has come amid a furor surrounding the National Basketball Association after a team official tweeted in support of the protests in Hong Kong and which has led Chinese sponsors and partners to cut ties with the NBA.

Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, has also felt the wrath of China’s aviation regulator, which has called for the suspension of staff who have taken part in the protests or expressed support.

Under Apple’s rules and policies, apps that meet its standards to appear in the App Store have sometimes been removed after their release if they were found to facilitate illegal activity or threaten public safety.

In 2011, Apple modified its app store to remove apps that listed locations for drunken driving checkpoints not previously published by law enforcement officials.

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis and John Ruwitch; Additional reporting by Greg Mitchell in San Francisco; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

San Francisco tour guide charged with carrying U.S. secrets to China

By Dan Whitcomb and Katie Paul

(Reuters) – A San Francisco tour guide has been charged with being an agent of the Chinese government, accused of picking up U.S. national security secrets from furtive locations and delivering them cloak and dagger style to Beijing, federal prosecutors said on Monday.

Xuehua Peng, also known as Edward Peng, was arrested on Friday in the San Francisco suburb of Hayward, California, and was denied bail during an initial court appearance by a U.S. magistrate judge that same day, federal prosecutors said at a Monday morning news conference.

“The conduct charged in this case alleges a combination of age-old spycraft and modern technology,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said.

“Defendant Xuehua (Edward) Peng is charged with executing dead drops, delivering payments, and personally carrying to Beijing, China, secure digital cards containing classified information related to the national security of the United States,” Anderson said.

Peng, 56, is not accused of stealing secrets from the U.S. government himself, but is charged with acting as a courier who between October 2015 and June 2018 picked up classified information from the “dead drops” in Oakland and Newark, California, and Columbus, Georgia and delivering them to his handlers from the Ministry of State Security (MSS) in Beijing.

FBI agents began conducting surveillance on Peng after a double agent, referred to in court papers only as “the Source,” was told by MSS officers in March 2015 that “Ed”, who had family and business dealings in China, could be relied on.

“I believe that ‘Ed’ – who was later identified as Peng – had been instructed in spycraft, practiced it and knew that he was working for intelligence operatives of the PRC,” FBI Agent Spiro Fokas, said in a sworn affidavit filed with the criminal complaint, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

An MSS officer told the Source that the ministry “control(s) everything about Ed’s” company and would “cut him off” if he did not do as told.

According to Fokas’ affidavit, the double agent on several occasions passed information to Peng for delivery to Beijing, dropping them at the front desk of a hotel or in rooms reserved by Peng.

The dead drops sometimes involved Peng leaving $10,000 or $20,000 taped in white envelopes inside the drawer of a television stand and retrieving secure digital cards with the classified information, according to the court papers.

Peng then flew to Beijing with the digital cards, the affidavit alleges.

Peng, who works as a sight-seeing tour operator for Chinese tourists in the Bay Area, faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted, prosecutors said. He has been ordered to return to court in San Francisco on Oct. 2.

(Reporting by Katie Paul in San Franciso and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Andrea Ricci and Bill Berkrot)

NRA sues San Francisco over ‘terrorist organization’ label

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – The National Rifle Association (NRA) sued San Francisco on Monday, saying a declaration by the city’s Board of Supervisors that officials should limit businesses linked to the NRA because it is a “terrorist organization” was effectively a blacklist.

The confrontation follows heightened debate in the United States following a spate of mass shootings, including one last month at an El Paso Walmart in which 22 people were killed and about 24 wounded in the city near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The NRA, a gun club and gun rights lobbying group with deep political influence, alleged in the suit that the city was violating its free speech rights for political reasons.

“This lawsuit comes with a message to those who attack the NRA: We will never stop fighting for our law-abiding members and their constitutional freedoms,” Wayne LaPierre, the group’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The resolution declares: “The National Rifle Association is a domestic terrorist organization’ whose advocacy is a direct cause of arming “individuals who would and have committed acts of terrorism”.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani of the San Francisco board was confident the measure to limit city and county officials working with companies doing business with the NRA would stand up in court, according to the New York Times.

“It’s a resolution, it’s not an ordinance, it’s non-binding,” she told the newspaper.

It requires government officials to “assess the financial and contractual relationships with our vendors and contractors have with [the NRA],” and to “take every reasonable step to limit those entities who do business with the City and County of San Francisco.” It does not go into effect unless signed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

The suit asks the court to “instruct elected officials that freedom of speech means you cannot silence or punish those with whom you disagree.”

“The Resolution does not try to hide it animus towards the NRA’s political speech, nor its animating purpose: to remove the NRA from the gun control debate,” said the suit, filed on Monday in the District Court for the Northern District of California.

Neither city officials nor a representative for the NRA were immediately available for comment.

(This has been refiled to fix typo in the lead.)

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Paul Tait and Philippa Fletcher)

Crews fight to outflank raging Northern California wildfire

Smoke rises as the large fire spread along Pope Valley in California, U.S., September 8, 2018 in this picture obtained on September 8, 2018 from social media. Craig Philpott/via REUTERS

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Firefighters battled on Saturday to outflank a wildfire that has forced the closure of an interstate highway in Northern California as the blaze swept through explosively dry mountain timber in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest for a fourth day.

As of late Saturday, the Delta Fire had scorched more than 40,500 acres (16,839 hectares) in the Cascade range since erupting on Wednesday in a forest canyon along the Sacramento River, about 250 miles (402 km) north of San Francisco, fire officials said.

No serious injuries or deaths have been reported, but the blaze has caused major travel disruptions. On Wednesday, flames raced across Interstate 5, chasing a number of truckers from their vehicles before flames engulfed their abandoned rigs.

A 45-mile (72-km) stretch of the I-5, a key north-south route through the entire state, has remained closed since then, requiring traffic detours of up to 120 miles (193 km).

Although containment of the blaze, a measure of the progress made in carving buffers around the fire’s perimeter to halt its spread, remained at zero, crews have made gains clearing away tinder-dry brush beyond its leading edge.

Firefighters were using natural barriers like roadways and ridges to set up control lines, which will allow them to burn away fuel ahead of the wildfire to slow its growth, Captain Brandon Vaccaro, a spokesman for the Delta fire incident command, said.

Smoke rises as the large fire spread along Pope Valley in California, U.S., September 8, 2018 in this picture obtained on September 8, 2018 from social media. Craig Philpott/via REUTERS

Smoke rises as the large fire spread along Pope Valley in California, U.S., September 8, 2018 in this picture obtained on September 8, 2018 from social media. Craig Philpott/via REUTERS

“The topography here is very steep, with a lot of canyons and valleys that make it very difficult for firefighters to work,” he said.

Much of the effort has also focused on protecting scattered homes and small communities in the sparsely populated fire zone. Two single-family homes have been destroyed, and two other buildings damaged, Vaccaro said.

Approximately 150 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Shasta and Trinity counties, Vaccaro said. Farther north, an evacuation warning was in effect for the town of Dunsmuir, advising some 1,600 residents to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

Cooler temperatures and higher humidity arrived overnight on Friday, providing a bit of a respite from the scorching weather that has hampered firefighting this week.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park Maryland said temperatures are expected to slowly drop from a high of 96 degrees Fahrenheit (35.6°C) Sunday to a high of 83 degrees Fahrenheit (28.3°C) by Tuesday.

Shasta County communities are still recovering from a devastating blaze this summer that killed eight people and incinerated hundreds of dwellings in and around Redding.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Alexander Smith and Diane Craft)

California risks severe ‘whiplash’ from drought to flood: scientists

FILE PHOTO: Waves crash against a sea wall in San Francisco Bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, December 16, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith//File Photo

By Alister Doyle

OSLO (Reuters) – California will suffer more volatile weather this century with a “whiplash” from drought to rain and mounting risks a repeat of the devastating “Great Flood” of 1862, scientists said on Monday.

Climate change, driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, would drive more extreme shifts between hot and dry summers and wet winters in the most populous U.S. state, they wrote in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Global warming is making California and other regions with similar Mediterranean-style climates, from southern Europe to parts of Australia, drier and warmer in summer, said lead author Daniel Swain of the University of California, Los Angeles.

In California in winter “an opposing trend toward a strong Pacific jet stream is projected to locally enhance precipitation during the core months of the ‘rainy season’,” he told Reuters.

“Natural precipitation variability in this region is already large, and projected future whiplash increases would amplify existing swings between dry and wet years,” the authors wrote.

They projected “a 25 percent to 100 percent increase in extreme dry-to-wet precipitation events” this century.

California had its worst drought in recorded history from 2010–2016, followed by severe rains and flooding that culminated with evacuation orders for almost 200,000 residents as a precaution near the Oroville Dam last year.

The study said that major urban centers, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, were “more likely than not” to suffer a freak series of storms by 2060 similar to ones in 1861-62 that led to the “Great Flood”.

The storms swamped the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, flooding an area 300 miles (500 km) long and 20 miles wide. Storms washed away bridges, inundated mines and wrecked farms.

FILE PHOTO: 65,000 cfs of water flow through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Max Whittaker/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: 65,000 cfs of water flow through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Max Whittaker/File Photo

A repeat “would probably lead to considerable loss of life and economic damages approaching a trillion dollars”, the study said.

As part of planning, Swain said the state should expand use of floodplains that can be deliberately flooded to soak up rains, such as the Yolo Bypass which protects the city of Sacramento.

The study assumes, however, that global greenhouse gas emissions will keep rising, at odds with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement under which almost 200 nations agreed to cut emissions to net zero between 2050 and 2100.

“Such a future can be partially, but not completely, avoided” if the world takes tougher action, Swain said. He noted that existing government pledges to limit warming fall well short of the Paris goals.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who doubts mainstream findings that greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of warming, plans to quit the deal, saying he wants to promote the U.S. fossil fuel industry.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Alison Williams)

Police in California respond to ‘active shooter’ at YouTube offices

By Paresh Dave

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Police said on Tuesday they were responding to an “active shooter” at the headquarters of YouTube in San Bruno, California.

Police in the city south of San Francisco warned people in a Twitter message to stay away from the address where YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc’s Google, is based.

The scenes following a possible shooting at the headquarters of YouTube in San Bruno, California, U.S., April 3, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. GRAEME MACDONALD/via REUTERS

The scenes following a possible shooting at the headquarters of YouTube in San Bruno, California, U.S., April 3, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. GRAEME MACDONALD/via REUTERS

“We are responding to an active shooter. Please stay away from Cherry Ave &amp; Bay Hill Drive,” San Bruno police said on Twitter.

A police dispatcher said by telephone that it was an “active situation,” declining to elaborate.

“Active shooter at YouTube HQ. Heard shots and saw people running while at my desk. Now barricaded inside a room with coworkers,” YouTube employee Vadim Lavrusik said on Twitter. He later tweeted that he was safe and had been evacuated.

“We were sitting in a meeting and then we heard people running because it was rumbling the floor. First thought was earthquake,” Todd Sherman, a YouTube product manager, said on Twitter.

Local television images showed YouTube employees walking out of the building with their hands raised.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump administration demands documents from ‘sanctuary cities’

People visit the Liberty State Island as Lower Manhattan is seen at the background in New York, U.S., August 17, 2017.

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday escalated its battle with so-called sanctuary cities that protect illegal immigrants from deportation, demanding documents on whether local law enforcement agencies are illegally withholding information from U.S. immigration authorities.

The Justice Department said it was seeking records from 23 jurisdictions — including America’s three largest cities, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as three states, California, Illinois and Oregon — and will issue subpoenas if they do not comply fully and promptly.

The administration has accused sanctuary cities of violating a federal law that prohibits local governments from restricting information about the immigration status of people arrested from being shared with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Many of the jurisdictions have said they already are in full compliance with the law. Some sued the administration after the Justice Department threatened to cut off millions of dollars in federal public safety grants. The cities have won in lower courts, but the legal fight is ongoing.

The Republican president’s fight with the Democratic-governed sanctuary cities, an issue that appeals to his hard-line conservative supporters, began just days after he took office last year when he signed an executive order saying he would block certain funding to municipalities that failed to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The order has since been partially blocked by a federal court.

“Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

Democratic mayors fired back, and some including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to skip a previously planned meeting on Wednesday afternoon at the White House with Trump.

“The Trump Justice Department can try to intimidate us with legal threats, but we will never abandon our values as a welcoming city or the rights of Chicago residents,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “The Trump administration’s actions undermine public safety by jeopardizing our philosophy of community policing, as they attempt to drive a wedge between immigrant communities and the police who serve them.”

IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWN

The issue is part of Trump’s broader immigration crackdown. As a candidate, he threatened to deport all roughly 11 million of them. As president, he has sought to step up arrests of illegal immigrants, rescinded protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought into the country illegally as children and issued orders blocking entry of people from several Muslim-majority countries.

Other jurisdictions on the Justice Department’s list include: Denver; San Francisco; the Washington state county that includes Seattle; Louisville, Kentucky; California’s capital Sacramento; New York’s capital Albany, Mississippi’s capital Jackson; West Palm Beach, Florida; the county that includes Albuquerque, New Mexico; and others.

The Justice Department said certain sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia were not on its list due to pending litigation.

On Twitter on Wednesday, De Blasio objected to the Justice Department’s decision to, in his words, “renew their racist assault on our immigrant communities. It doesn’t make us safer and it violates America’s core values.”

“The White House has been very clear that we don’t support sanctuary cities,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, adding that mayors cannot “pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”

The Justice Department last year threatened to withhold certain public safety grants to sanctuary cities if they failed to adequately share information with ICE, prompting legal battles in Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

In the Chicago case, a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction barring the Justice Department from withholding this grant money on the grounds that its action was likely unconstitutional. This funding is typically used to help local police improve crime-fighting techniques, buy equipment and assist crime victims.

The Justice Department is appealing that ruling. It said that litigation has stalled the issuance of these grants for fiscal 2017, which ended Sept. 30.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham)

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)

Russia pledges ‘harsh response’ to U.S. tit-for-tat measures

A sign outside the entrance to the building of the Consulate General of Russia is shown in San Francisco, California, U.S., August 31, 2017.

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Friday it would respond harshly to any U.S. measures designed to hurt it, a day after the United States told Moscow to close its San Francisco consulate and buildings in Washington and New York.

The warning, from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, came as Russia said it was weighing a response to the U.S. move that will force it to shutter two trade missions in the United States as well as the San Francisco consulate by Sept. 2.

“We’ll react as soon as we finish our analysis,” Lavrov told students in Moscow. “We will respond harshly to things that damage us.”

Separately, a top Kremlin aide complained the U.S. demarche pushed bilateral ties further into a blind alley and fuelled a spiral of tit-for-tat retaliatory measures.

U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January, saying he wanted to improve U.S.-Russia ties which were at a post-Cold War low. But since then, ties have frayed further after U.S. intelligence officials said Russia had meddled in the presidential election, something Moscow denies.

Trump, himself battling allegations his associates colluded with Russia, grudgingly signed new sanctions on Moscow into law this month which had been drawn up by Congress.

When it became clear those measures would become law, Moscow ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia by more than half, to 455 people.

Lavrov hinted on Friday that Russia might look at ordering further reductions in U.S. embassy staff, suggesting Moscow had been generous last time by allowing Washington to keep “more than 150” extra people.

He said Russia had cut the U.S. numbers to tally with the number of Russian diplomats in the United States, but that Moscow had generously included more than 150 Russian staff who work at Russia’s representation office at the United Nations.

Lavrov said Moscow still hoped for better relations and blamed Trump’s political foes for the deteriorating situation.

“I want to say that this whole story with exchanging tit-for-tat sanctions was not started by us,” Lavrov said.

“It was started by the Obama administration to undermine U.S.-Russia relations and to not allow Trump to advance constructive ideas or fulfil his pre-election pledges.”

Barack Obama, then outgoing president, expelled 35 suspected Russian spies in December and seized two Russian diplomatic compounds. President Vladimir Putin paused before responding, saying he would wait to see how Trump handled Russia.

“We thought this administration could exercise common sense, but unfortunately the Russophobes in Congress are not allowing it to,” said Lavrov, who complained that the United States had only given Moscow 48 hours to comply with its latest demands.

 

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)