(Adds U.S., Russian comments, paragraphs 3-5)
By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, March 26 (Reuters) - The United States told the United Nations on Monday that it was expelling 12 Russian U.N. diplomats because of action they had taken outside their official capacity that was an abuse of their privileges of residence.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley justified the action under a 1947 agreement that established the United Nations headquarters in New York.
“When we see these espionage tactics that are taking place right here at the heart of the U.N., we can’t have that. This is really not just us but multiple countries saying all of these actions have to stop,” Haley told reporters.
When asked if the U.S. move was in accordance with the U.N. headquarters agreement, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters: “I don’t think so.”
“It’s a very unfortunate, very unfriendly move,” he said.
The United States said on Monday it would expel a total of 60 Russian diplomats - including the 12 at the U.N. - joining governments across Europe punishing the Kremlin for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain that they have blamed on Moscow.
The 12 were described by U.S. officials as intelligence officers and the move reflects U.S. concerns that Russian intelligence activities have been increasingly aggressive.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the United States specified that it was taking action under section 13 (b) of the U.N. headquarters agreement.
The section says that “in case of abuse of such privileges of residence by any such person in activities in the United States outside his official capacity” they will not be exempt from U.S. laws and regulations “regarding the continued residence of aliens.”
It also says that any move to expel U.N. diplomats must be approved by the U.S. Secretary of State after consultation with either the country involved or the U.N. Secretary-General.
“Given the sensitivity of the matter, which is ongoing, we will not comment further at this stage other than to confirm that the Secretary-General will closely follow this matter and engage as appropriate with the governments concerned,” Haq said. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)