U.S. diplomats head to China despite row over Houston consulate

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A flight bound for Shanghai carrying U.S. diplomats has left the United States as Washington presses ahead with its plan to restaff its mission in China a day after a U.S. order to close the Chinese consulate in Houston sharply escalated tensions.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters the flight, carrying an unspecified number of U.S. diplomats, left Washington on Wednesday evening. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An internal State Department email dated July 17, seen by Reuters, said the department was working to arrange a charter flight to Shanghai from Washington’s Dulles International Airport departing on Thursday.

The source said this flight had departed earlier than initially planned.

The email said a tentative July 29 flight to Tianjin and Beijing was in the initial planning stages and a target date for another flight, to Guangzhou, was still to be determined.

The memo said priority was being given to reuniting separated families and returning section/agency heads.

The U.S. is working to fully restaff its mission in China, one of its largest in the world, which was evacuated in February because of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Thursday’s flight went ahead despite a dramatic move by Washington to close China’s consulate in Houston amid sweeping espionage allegations.

China warned on Thursday it would be forced to respond to the U.S. move, which had “severely harmed” relations.

It gave no details, but the South China Morning Post reported that China may close the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, while a source told Reuters on Wednesday it was considering shutting the consulate in Wuhan, where the United States withdrew staff at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Two flights have so far taken place to return some of the more than 1,200 U.S. diplomats with their families to China since negotiations for the returns hit an impasse in early July over conditions China wanted to impose on the Americans.

The impasse caused the State Department to postpone flights tentatively scheduled for the first 10 days of July.

U.S.-China relations have deteriorated this year to their lowest level in decades over a wide range of issues, including China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

Washington and Beijing have been negotiating for weeks over the terms of how to bring U.S. diplomats back amid disagreement over COVID-19 testing and quarantine procedures as well as frequency of flights and how many each can bring back.

(Reporting by Humeyra Paumuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft)

Some State Department employees have tested positive for coronavirus – Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A handful of U.S. State Department employees across the globe have tested positive for the new coronavirus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.

“We’ve had a couple of employees, you can count them on one hand, who have positive tests,” Pompeo said in a news briefing. “We’ve handled those exactly the way we’re asking every American to respond to those wherever they find themselves in the world.”

He gave no details on the precise number of State Department employees who have tested positive for the highly contagious virus, where they were based or whether they had returned to the United States. He noted that the State Department has already limited U.S. diplomats’ travel.

“We’ll continue to take care of our team, we will act in a way that’s consistent with the CDC’s (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and the professional medical staff who work here with the State Department,” he said.

Pompeo added that he felt “great,” though he did not say whether he had been tested for the coronavirus.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Writing by Daphne Psaledakis and Jonathan Landay, Editing by Franklin Paul and Paul Simao)

U.S. imposes new rules on state-owned Chinese media over propaganda concerns

U.S. imposes new rules on state-owned Chinese media over propaganda concerns
By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Tuesday said it will begin treating five major Chinese state-run media entities with U.S. operations the same as foreign embassies, requiring them to register their employees and U.S. properties with the State Department.

Two senior state department officials said the decision was made because China has been tightening state control over its media, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has made more aggressive use of them to spread pro-Beijing propaganda.

“The control over both the content and editorial control have only strengthened over the course of Xi Jinping’s term in power,” said one official. “These guys are in fact arms of the CCP’s (Chinese Community Party’s) propaganda apparatus.”

Beijing was not informed in advance of the decision and would be notified on Tuesday afternoon, one official said.

Beijing’s control of China’s state-owned media has become “more and more draconian,” the second official said.

Both officials spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Tensions between the two superpowers have escalated since President Donald Trump came to office three years ago, with disputes ranging from trade tariffs to accusations of Chinese spying in the United States and to U.S. support for Taiwan.

Tuesday’s decision, the officials said, is not linked to any recent developments in Sino-U.S. relations and has been under consideration for some time.

The new determination is being applied to the Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corp. and Hai Tian Development USA, Inc., the officials said.

China Daily is an English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party. Hai Tian Development USA distributes the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the party’s Central Committee.

The five entities’ U.S. operations will have to disclose their personnel rosters and hiring and firing decisions and register properties in the United States that they rent or own with the State Department, the officials said.

They also will have to seek advanced approval before they lease or purchase new U.S. properties, they said.

Asked if there are concerns that Beijing will retaliate against Western media based in China, one official noted that foreign news outlets there already work under strict rules and that the new disclosure rules impose no restrictions on the five state-owned Chinese entities’ U.S. operations.

“These guys operate in a far more liberal environment here in the United States than any foreign press enjoy in the People’s Republic of China, the official said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and David Gregorio)

Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region

Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region
By Ahmed Rasheed and Idrees Ali

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Protesters angry about U.S. air strikes on Iraq hurled stones and torched a security post at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, setting off a confrontation with guards and prompting the United States to send additional troops to the Middle East.

The protests, led by Iranian-backed militias, posed a new foreign policy challenge for U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020. He threatened to retaliate against Iran, but said later he does not want to go to war.

The State Department said diplomatic personnel inside were safe and there were no plans to evacuate them.

Embassy guards used stun grenades and tear gas to repel protesters, who stormed and burned the security post at the entrance but did not breach the main compound.

The Pentagon said that in addition to Marines sent to protect embassy personnel, about 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were being sent to the Middle East and that additional troops were prepared to deploy over the next several days.

“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 750 troops would initially be based out of Kuwait. The officials said that as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in the coming days if needed.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces.

The unprecedented attack on an American diplomatic mission in Iraq marked a sharp escalation of the proxy conflict between the United States and Iran – both influential players in the country – and plunged U.S. relations with Iraq to their worst level in years.

The United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 and ousted Saddam Hussein. But political stability has been elusive.

Trump, on a two-week working vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, spoke by phone to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq. “President Trump emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the White House said.

Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump said in a tweet.

Asked later in the day about the possibility of tensions spiraling into a war with Iran, Trump told reporters: “Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”

Iran, under severe economic duress from punishing U.S. sanctions put in place by Trump, denied responsibility.

“America has the surprising audacity of attributing to Iran the protests of the Iraqi people against (Washington’s) savage killing of at least 25 Iraqis,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

The embassy incident came seven years after the 2012 attack by armed militants on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans and led to multiple congressional investigations.

TENSIONS OVER AIR STRIKES

The protests followed U.S. air strikes on Sunday on bases operated by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah inside Iraq, which killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55. The strikes were retaliation for the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, which Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet. “Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible.”

Democrats upset that Trump ditched the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2015 were quick to pounce on the incident as a failure of Trump’s Iran policy.

“The predictable result of the Trump administration’s reckless bluster, escalation and miscalculation in the Middle East is that we are now hurtling closer to an unauthorized war with Iran that the American people do not support,” said U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The protesters, joined briefly by Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia leaders, threw stones at the embassy gate, while others chanted: “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces prevented protesters entering, later reinforced by U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces.

The embassy has been hit by sporadic but non-lethal rocket fire in recent months, and was regularly shelled following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but had not been physically attacked by demonstrators in that way before.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that U.S. officials never contemplated evacuating the embassy and had kept the heat on Iraqi officials to ensure the compound was safe.

“We reminded them throughout the day of their continued responsibility,” he said.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella grouping of the militias that have been officially integrated into Iraq’s armed forces, said 62 militiamen and civilians were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiaman and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away.

Iraqis have been taking to the streets in the thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Abdul Mahdi’s government.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Idrees Ali in Washington; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Palm Beach, Fla. and Daphne Psaledakis, Doina Chiacu, Diane Bartz in Washington; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney)

U.S. House passes Hong Kong rights bills, Trump expected to sign

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back protesters in Hong Kong and send a warning to China about human rights, with President Donald Trump expected to sign them into law, despite delicate trade talks with Beijing.

The House sent the bills to the White House after voting 417 to 1 for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. Strong support had been expected after the House passed a similar bill last month.

The measure, which has angered Beijing, would require the State Department to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for the special U.S. trading consideration that helped it become a world financial center.

It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Demonstrators have protested for more than five months in the streets of Hong Kong, amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio was a main sponsor of the Senate-passed bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin.

The House passed, by 417 to zero, a second bill, which the Senate also approved unanimously on Tuesday, to ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. That measure bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

President Trump has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto.

A person familiar with the matter said the president intended to sign the bills into law, not veto them.

Vetoes would have been difficult to sustain, since the measures passed both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House with almost no objections.

A two-thirds majority would be required in both the Senate and House to override a veto.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the legislation’s passage, and vowed strong countermeasures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

China’s foreign ministry said this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Thursday, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in Hong Kong matters and China’s internal affairs.

“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” it said in a front-page editorial.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)

Islamic State’s presence evolved worldwide despite Syria defeat: U.S. State Department

Islamic State’s presence evolved worldwide despite Syria defeat: U.S. State Department
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The global presence of Islamic State continued to advance in 2018 through networks and affiliates, the State Department said in its annual terrorism report, even though the Trump administration declared it defeated the jihadi group in Syria and killed its leader last month in a U.S. raid.

Iran has also remained a top state sponsor of terrorism, the report said, and funneled nearly a billion dollars per year to support its proxies in the region despite Washington having significantly ramped up its sanctions against Tehran.

Terrorism tactics and the use of technologies have also evolved in 2018, while war-hardened fighters from groups such as Islamic State returning to their home countries began raising fresh threats, the report said.

“Even as ISIS lost almost all its physical territory, the group proved its ability to adapt, especially through its efforts to inspire or direct followers online,” said Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, whose office produced the congressionally mandated report.

“Additionally, battle-hardened terrorists headed home from the war zone in Syria and Iraq or traveled to third countries, posing new dangers,” he said.

Islamic State declared its so-called “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hard-line group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

In 2017, Islamic State lost control of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and quickly thereafter almost all of its territory as a result of operations by U.S.-backed forces. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed last month in Syria in a raid by U.S. Special forces.

World leaders welcomed his death, but they and security experts warned that the group, which carried out atrocities against religious minorities and horrified most Muslims, remained a security threat in Syria and beyond.

The group on Thursday confirmed his death in an audio tape posted online and said a successor, identified as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, had been appointed. It vowed revenge against the United States.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dan Grebler)

For Syrian Kurds, a leader’s killing deepens sense of U.S. betrayal

For Syrian Kurds, a leader’s killing deepens sense of U.S. betrayal
By Tom Perry and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf spent the final months of her life building a political party that she hoped would help shape Syria’s future, drawing the attention of U.S. officials who said it would have a say in what happened once the war ended.

To her colleagues in the Future Syria Party and Kurdish communities in Syria’s northeast more broadly, her killing became a symbol of betrayal by the United States.

As recently as Oct. 3, State Department officials reassured her at a meeting that Washington would safeguard northern Syria from a threatened Turkish assault by mediating between Kurdish-led forces and Ankara, according to a colleague who was present.

A state department official said the U.S. message to Syrian partners had been consistent: that American forces would be withdrawing from the country.

Days after the meeting, President Donald Trump announced U.S. forces would quit the region, leaving it vulnerable to attack by Turkey.

Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, key allies in the U.S. battle against Islamic State, said rebels fighting on the Turkish side murdered Khalaf. She was 34.

She was slain on Oct. 12 along with a driver and aide when Turkey-backed fighters stopped their SUV on the M4 highway in northern Syria, according to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and officials in her party.

The spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian rebel force, the National Army, at the time denied its fighters killed her, saying they had not advanced as far as the M4.

Last week, the spokesman, Youssef Hammoud, said the incident was being investigated among other “breaches”.

“If America hadn’t decided to withdraw, these factions … would not have dared to carry out their operations in that area,” said Moaz Abdul Karim, a Future Syria Party leader.

The U.S. State Department has said it was looking into reports of Khalaf’s death apparently while in the hands of Turkey-backed forces, calling the reports “extremely troubling”.

An autopsy report circulated by the SDF said Khalaf’s body had been riddled with bullets.

AMERICAN ASSURANCES

On Oct. 3, U.S. State Department representatives visited the Future Syria Party’s headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa and told Khalaf and party president Ibrahim al-Kaftan that American efforts in the region were aimed at mediation.

Since the party was founded in 2018, its leaders say U.S. officials have voiced their support. The party aims to attract members from across the ethnic spectrum in a region where critics said the Kurdish YPG militia had become too powerful.

“Yes, there was encouragement from the Americans to set up a party,” Kaftan said.

“The party was already being worked on by a team who believes in Syrian democracy. It was a Syrian idea, not an American one, but I repeat they were in favor of this idea,” he told Reuters in written answers to questions.

U.S. forces withdrew from a section of the border on Oct. 7, and soon afterwards Turkish troops mounted their third incursion into northern Syria since 2016.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist threat due to their links to a Kurdish insurgency at home. It has also said its operation in Syria was designed to create a buffer where some of the 3.6 million refugees who fled the Syrian conflict into Turkey could be re-settled.

DEEPLY INVOLVED

A civil engineer by training, Khalaf was deeply involved in the politics of northeast Syria from the earliest days of the war, now in its eighth year.

After leaving her job as a state employee, she helped to set up the Kurdish-led administration whose influence would eventually stretch over one third of Syria including predominantly Arab areas.

In 2018, she was elected secretary general of the Future Syria Party, which was launched from Raqqa, a predominantly Arab city where the SDF defeated IS in 2017 with U.S. backing.

Kaftan, an Arab architect from Manbij, was elected its leader, and he said that U.S. and French officials attended the ceremony.

The United States has long adopted a cautious political approach toward northern Syria, even as it backed the SDF militarily in the fight against IS.

Washington opposed the emergence of the Kurdish-led autonomous region and the main Kurdish groups were always kept out of the U.N. political process for Syria, despite their huge influence on the ground.

But according to Kaftan, U.S. officials including the envoy for Syria James Jeffrey told members of his party that it would have a role in international talks over Syria’s future.

The State Department official said the United States wanted a political solution to Syria’s conflict that included “full representation for all Syrians.

“U.S. officials, including Ambassador Jeffrey, made clear that this included the populations of northeast Syria and intervened repeatedly with the UN to this end.”

The fate of Kurds in northern Syria is now more uncertain than it has been for years. Stripped of U.S. protection, the SDF struck a deal for Syrian government forces to deploy into the region it controlled.

The SDF says Washington has stabbed it in the back.

Despite the Turkish incursion, which has sparked an exodus and killed scores of people, leaders of Future Syria Party hope it will have a role in shaping the next phase of Syria’s recovery from war.

Khalaf always believed the solution in Syria must come through dialogue with all concerned parties including the Syrian government and Turkey, Kaftan said.

“Hevrin didn’t sleep more than 4-5 hours a day,” he said. “But she would always say Syria deserves a lot from us, and for the people who have suffered through nine years of war, we must seek to secure a real, safe future for them.”

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Pompeo says China trade deal has ‘got to be right’: interview

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Trump will reject a U.S.-China trade deal that is not perfect, but the United States would still keep working on an agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a media interview.

“Things are in a good place, but it’s got to be right,” Pompeo told Sinclair Broadcasting Group, according to a transcript released by the State Department on Tuesday.

Asked if Trump would walk away from any deal that was not perfect, Pompeo said, “Yes” and pointed to the Republican president’s rejection of an agreement with North Korea at a summit last week in Hanoi.

Trump last week said that he was willing to abandon trade talks with China, but U.S. advisers in recent days have signaled more positive outcomes.

Pompeo made his remarks following stops in Iowa, where he was attending a conference for farmers, who have been caught up in the ongoing trade war with the world’s top two economies.

“This has to work for America. If it doesn’t work, we’ll keep banging away at it. We’re going to get to the right outcome. I’m confident that we will,” Pompeo told Sinclair.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Saudi Arabia strips Osama bin Laden’s son of citizenship; U.S. offers million dollar reward

A photograph circulated by the U.S. State Department’s Twitter account to announce a $1 million USD reward for al Qaeda key leader Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, is seen March 1, 2019. State Department/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has stripped citizenship from Hamza bin Laden, the son of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the interior ministry said in a statement published by the official gazette.

The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading “to the identification or location in any country” of Hamza, calling him a key al Qaeda leader.

Hamza, believed to be about 30 years old, was at his father’s side in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks and spent time with him in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan pushed much of al Qaeda&rsqu’s senior leadership there, according to the Brookings Institution.

Introduced by the organization’s new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message in 2015, Hamza provides a younger voice for the group whose aging leaders have struggled to inspire militants around the world galvanized by Islamic State, analysts say.

He has called for acts of terrorism in Western capitals and threatened to take revenge against the United States for his father’s killing, the State Department said in 2017 when it designated him as a global terrorist.

He also threatened to target Americans abroad and urged Saudi tribes to unite with Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to fight against Saudi Arabia, it said.

Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces who raided his compound in Pakistan in 2011. Hamza was thought to be under house arrest in Iran at the time, and documents recovered from the compound indicated that aides had been trying to reunite him with his father.

The Saudi decision to strip him of his citizenship was made by a royal order in November, according to a statement published in the Um al-Qura official journal.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Heavens)

U.S. demands immediate return of ex-Marine detained in Russia on spy charges

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, appears in a photo provided by the Whelan family on January 1, 2019. Courtesy Whelan Family/Handout via REUTERS

By Mary Milliken and Gabrielle Teacutetrault-Farber

BRASILIA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States is demanding the immediate return of a retired U.S. Marine detained by Russia on spying charges, and wants an explanation of why he was arrested, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.

Pompeo, in Brasilia for the inauguration of Brazil’s new president, said the U.S. government hoped to gain consular access to Paul Whelan within hours.

“We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he’s been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return,” Pompeo said.

In Moscow, RIA news agency cited a foreign ministry spokesman as saying Russia has allowed consular access to Whelan. Russia’s FSB state security service detained Whelan on Friday and opened a criminal case against him.

The State Department did not immediately confirm that Moscow had provided consular access.

Whelan was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a former fellow Marine and is innocent of the espionage charges against him, his family said on Tuesday.

He had been staying with the wedding party at Moscow’s Metropol hotel when he went missing, his brother, David, said.

“His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” Whelan’s family said in a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday.

Russia’s FSB state security service said Whelan had been detained on Friday, but it gave no details of his alleged espionage activities. Under Russian law, espionage can carry a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years.

David Whelan told CNN that his brother, who had served in Iraq, has been to Russia many times in the past for both work and personal trips, and had been serving as a tour guide for some of the wedding guests. His friends filed a missing person report in Moscow after his disappearance, his brother said.

He declined to comment on his brother’s work status at the time of his arrest and whether his brother lived in Novi, Michigan, as address records indicate.

BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, said Whelan is the company’s director, global security. He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world.”

BUTINA CASE

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Whelan’s arrest to set up an exchange for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to acting as an agent tasked with influencing U.S. conservative groups.

Russia says Butina was forced to make a false confession about being a Russian agent.

Putin told U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda,” the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump’s relations with Putin have been under a microscope as a result of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Moscow has denied intervening in the election. Trump has said there was no collusion and characterized Mueller’s probe as a witch hunt.

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)