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Were Russian diplomats vacationing or spying at the two compounds US shut down

Two luxury retreats in New York and Maryland where Russian diplomats have gone for decades to play tennis, sail and swim were shut down by the Obama administration on Friday in retaliation to Moscow’s cyber-meddling in the November presidential election.

world Updated: Dec 31, 2016 00:57 IST
AP
Russia hacking

An entrance to the grounds of a riverfront compound near Centreville, Maryland, that has been used by Russian Federation diplomats for years is blocked by state department personnel on December 29, 2016.(AP )

Two luxury retreats in New York and Maryland where Russian diplomats have gone for decades to play tennis, sail and swim were shut down by the Obama administration on Friday in retaliation to Moscow’s cyber-meddling in the November presidential election.

The US said the two Cold War-era estates were being used for intelligence activities.

About a half-hour before the noon deadline, caravans of diplomatic vehicles, some carrying boxes, left both Russian compounds under the watch of US state department agents.

Read | Obama sanctions Russian intel services, expels 35 diplomats over presidential poll hacking

The 45-acre Maryland retreat boasts a brick mansion along the Corsica River in the bucolic Eastern Shore region. Reports indicate it was bought by the Soviet Union in 1972 and served as a getaway for its diplomats in nearby Washington.

This 1940 aerial photo shows the Raskob Estate at Pioneer Point seen on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. Reports indicate the property was bought by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and historically served as a recreational getaway for its diplomats. (AP)

In New York, Russian diplomatic staff members were evicted from a mansion on Long Island’s Gold Coast. The estate, once called Elmcroft, is in the town of Oyster Bay and was purchased by the Soviets in 1952.

Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at UN headquarters that the Obama administration was destroying holiday fun for the children of Russian diplomats.

“I think it’s quite scandalous that they chose to throw out our kids,” he said. “They know full well that those two facilities they mentioned, they are vacation facilities for our kids and this is Christmas, and this is vacation time for our schools. This is the time when the kids go to those facilities. So to close our access to them just while those holidays were starting, to me was rather silly.”

President Barack Obama announced the step on Thursday as part of sanctions that included the expulsion of 35 Russians who the US said were spies operating under diplomatic cover.

On Thursday, people who identified themselves as state department employees asked reporters to leave when they approached the Maryland property.

“We coexist with these people peacefully,” said Alison Davis, who lives nearby. “It’s basically their summer cottage, but we see the diplomat tags driving here all the time, very friendly. We see them biking, say hello.”

Still, she said, local residents don’t “really have any interactions with them. They kind of keep to themselves.”

She said the compound has a private beach and was typically used for a sailing regatta during the end-of-summer Labor Day weekend.

Read | Putin won’t retaliate to US actions, invests in Trump to improve ties

An Associated Press story from 1992 about the sprawling property said at the time that the brick mansion had been converted into 12 apartments and a dozen cottages, each with four apartments. In total, the compound can accommodate 40 families at a time, according to that report.

That report also said that the property then boasted of four lighted tennis courts, a swimming pool and a soccer field and that a camp was held there for Russian children during the summer and for two weeks each Christmas.

Russia maintains two weekend retreats for its UN diplomats about an hour’s drive outside New York City, where the United Nations has its high-rise headquarters.

In addition to Elmcroft, Russian diplomats stay at another grand Gold Coast estate, the Killenworth mansion, not far from the city of Glen Cove. It, too, was bought during the Cold War.

Glen Cove Mayor Reggie Spinello said on Friday that Killenworth was not being closed down by the government.

Both Long Island properties were the subject of long-running property-tax battles between the Russian government and local officials.

Those disputes have since been resolved, and for years Oyster Bay has waived parking and beach fees for Russia’s UN diplomats as a goodwill gesture.