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Aug 21, 7:16 AM EDT

US Embassy in Russia suspends issuing nonimmigrant visas


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MOSCOW (AP) -- In a step that could affect hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists, the U.S. Embassy in Russia said Monday it would suspend issuing nonimmigrant visas for eight days from Wednesday in response to the Russian decision to cap embassy staff.

The embassy made the decision after the Russian Foreign Ministry ordered a cap on the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Russia, it said in a statement, adding that it would resume issuing visas in Moscow on Sept. 1, but maintain the suspension at consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok indefinitely.

Nearly a quarter of a million Russian tourists visited the U.S. last year, according to Russian tourism officials.

Earlier this month, Russia ordered the U.S. to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755, or by two-thirds, heightening tensions between Washington and Moscow after the U.S. Congress approved sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and for its aggression in Ukraine and Syria.

President Putin said that Moscow felt forced to reciprocate to the new package of sanctions against what he dismissed as "unfounded accusations," but that it would hold off on further steps against the U.S.

The vast majority of the more than 1,000 employees at the various US diplomatic missions in Russia, including the embassy in Moscow and the three consulates are local employees.

The U.S. embassy said on Monday that Russia's decision to cut its staff "calls into question Russia's seriousness about pursuing better relations." It insisted however that it will able to maintain adequate staffing "to carry out essential elements of our mission."

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a news conference the decision to cut visa operations aims to make Russians feel discontent with their own government.

Asked about a possible Russian reaction, Lavrov said Russia will "study" the embassy's announcement, adding that unlike the U.S. government Russia "is not going to take it out on U.S. citizens."

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