U.S to halt work at two consulates in Russia after COVID-19 drawdown

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Russian and U.S. state flags fly near a factory of Ford Sollers in Vsevolozhsk

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States is halting work at two consulates in Russia, the State Department said, citing safety and security issues at the facilities where operations had been curtailed over COVID-19.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in consultation with Ambassador John Sullivan decided to shut the consulate in Vladivostok in the far east and suspend operations at the consulate in Yekaterinburg, a State Department representative said in a statement emailed to Reuters on Saturday.

The decision, part of "ongoing efforts to ensure the safe and secure operation of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation," did not affect Russian consulates in the United States, the statement said, without offering detailed reasons for the move.

Asked this week about Russian media reports that the two consulates might be closed, the U.S. embassy in Moscow said it had suspended operations at the Vladivostok consulate and rolled back operations in Yekaterinburg in March because of the pandemic.

U.S.-Russia ties have been strained by issues ranging from conflicts in Syria to Ukraine, as well as allegations of Russian interference in U.S. politics, which Moscow denies.

Hackers believed to be working for Russia are accused of wide-ranging hacks of U.S. government agencies and a private companies. Pompeo said on Friday it was "pretty clearly" evident that Russia was involved in the attacks that have sent computer network security teams worldwide scrambling to limit the damage.

The Kremlin denies Russian involvement.

At his annual news conference on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped U.S. President-elect Joe Biden would help resolve some of the difficult issues in relations between Moscow and Washington.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by William Mallard)