A plane carrying 35 Russian
diplomats expelled from the United States over Moscow’s alleged interference in the presidential election took off from Washington on Jan.1 and landed in Moscow on Jan. 2, Russian
news agencies reported.
“The plane has taken off, everyone is on board,” said the Russian
embassy in Washington, quoted by the state-owned RIA Novosti agency.
Il-96 plane, flown specially from Russia, carrying the diplomats and their families landed at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport at 2:05 a.m. local time (11:05 p.m. GMT) after having taken off from Washington on Jan. 1, Russian
state television said, according to AFP.
State television showed the diplomats and their families gathering their luggage on the tarmac in the rain before heading inside the terminal.
“We can confirm that the 35 Russian
diplomats declared persona non grata have, along with their family members, departed the United States,” a U.S. State Department spokesman told AFP.
U.S. intelligence says the Kremlin ordered a hack-and-release of Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton campaign staff emails in a bid to put Republican Donald Trump in the White House.
Moscow has repeatedly dismissed the allegations.
The expulsions of the diplomats - described as intelligence operatives based at the Russian
embassy in Washington and the consulate in San Francisco - were part of a package of sanctions ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 29 in the final weeks of his administration.
Obama also ordered the closure of two Russian
compounds in New York and Maryland that the United States says were used “for intelligence-related purposes.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week rebuked the outgoing president for “unfriendly steps” amounting to “a provocation aimed at further undermining Russian-American relations.”
The Kremlin strongman warned that Russia
reserved the right to respond but refrained from ordering the tit-for-tat expulsion of American
diplomats from Russia, saying that Moscow’s next move will be “based on the policies pursued by the administration of President Donald Trump.”
Putin’s decision has been interpreted as a sign he is looking to Trump to rebuild U.S.-Russian ties after the U.S. presidential inauguration later this month.
A top aide to President-elect Donald Trump, Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on ABC’s “This Week,” that the White House may have disproportionately punished Russia
by ordering the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian
Spicer said that Trump will be asking questions of U.S. intelligence agencies over the sanctions.
“One of the questions that we have is why the magnitude of this? I mean you look at 35 people being expelled, two sites being closed down, the question is, is that response in proportion to the actions taken?
Maybe it was; maybe it wasn’t but you have to think about that,” Reuters quoted Spicer as saying.
Trump is to have briefings with intelligence agencies this week after he returns to New York.