SAN FRANCISCO - Personnel seen hurrying to shut Russia's consulate in San Francisco ahead of Saturday deadline, amid diplomatic fallout.
Workers were seen hurrying to shut Russia's consulate in San Francisco ahead of a Saturday deadline imposed by Washington, a day after black smoke rose from a chimney at the building.
Russia had been told on Thursday to close its San Francisco consulate, and annexes in New York and Washington, amid escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow.
The order to leave the consulate and an official diplomatic residence in San Francisco - home to a community of Russian immigrants and technology workers - worsened an already tense standoff between Washington and Moscow, even for those who have long monitored activities inside the closely monitored building.
"There is finally the realisation by the administration that Russians have been involved in intelligence operations at this consulate, which they have been doing for decades," said Rick Smith, a veteran FBI special agent who previously headed the bureau's Russian counterintelligence squad in San Francisco.
"It's almost 50 years of history and part of a tit-for-tat, but this is more like a hammer."
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Russian consulate said the closure would hurt both Russian and American citizens needing its services.
The consulate issued more than 16,000 tourist visas to American citizens last year, it said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed that US "special services" intended to search the consulate on Saturday.
The US also plans to search apartments in San Francisco used by Russian diplomats and their families, she said - those families would have to vacate their homes for 10 to 12 hours so officials could search.
Fire department turned away
The State Department is not commenting specifically on whether officials plan to search the premises. But the State Department said as of Saturday, access to the consulate will only be granted with State Department permission.
It had no comment on the black smoke coming from the embassy in San Francisco, which triggered a visit from the San Francisco Fire Department.
Firefighters who arrived at the scene were turned away by consulate officials who came from inside the building.
An Associated Press news agency reporter heard people who came from inside the building tell firefighters that there was no problem and that consulate staff were burning unidentified items in a fireplace.
Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman from the San Francisco Fire Department, said the department received a call about the smoke and sent a crew to investigate, but determined the smoke was coming from the chimney.
Talmadge said she did not know what they were burning on a day when normally cool San Francisco temperatures had already climbed to 95 degrees by noon.
"It was not unintentional. They were burning something in their fireplace," she said.
American counterintelligence officials have long kept a watchful eye on Russia's outpost in San Francisco, concerned that people posted to the consulate as diplomats were engaged in espionage.
In addition to Consul Sergey Petrov, the consulate's website showed 13 other Russian officials working at the San Francisco post.
When approached Friday, Petrov declined to answer questions about the closure or about what was being burned inside.