Russia says visa problems force reduction of its embassy in London

October 21, 2016 12:47 PM EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - Russia has been forced to cut the size of its embassy in London after Britain delayed granting visas for months to dozens of its staff including career diplomats, the Russian ambassador said on Friday.

Russia and Britain have repeatedly clashed publicly over Syria, Ukraine and the 2006 London murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said earlier this month that Russia risked becoming a pariah nation if it continued to bomb civilian sites in Syria and urged protesters to demonstrate outside the Russian embassy in London.

In an unusual public intervention that indicates how testy relations have become between Britain and Russia, Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko scolded Prime Minister Theresa May and Johnson for giving what he said were "anti-Russian statements".

He said that for over a year Britain had been delaying visas to diplomatic staff.

"We are trying to understand whether Britain wants to have an adequate Russian diplomatic presence in London," Yakovenko, a former deputy foreign minister, said.

"The embassy is shrinking and if it continues the embassy will be reduced further. People cannot be replaced because the visas are not being issued. I hope this problem will be resolved under present government."

Russia said this week it may retaliate after a British state-owned bank said it was withdrawing its services from Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT.

Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman on Friday linked the dispute to the BBC and pointed out that the corporation's Russian service had run what she dismissed as an empty investigation into RT's UK activities.

"Here in London, we simply do not understand the strategy of this country on visa issues," Yakovenko said.

A spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office said there was no policy of delaying visas for Russian diplomats.

"We have made clear to the Russians that the queues need to be cleared on both sides, and they have agreed work with us on this," the Foreign Office spokesman said. "There is no policy to delay visas for Russian diplomats."

"We regularly discuss the visa exchange process with the Russians at official level and this requires both the UK and Russia to work together to ensure the effective operation of our respective embassies," the spokesman said.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Stephen Addison)



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