Tennis, sailing or spying? US shuts down 2 Russian compounds

CENTREVILLE, Md. (AP) — Two luxury retreats in New York and Maryland where Russian diplomats have gone for decades to play tennis, sail and swim were shut down by the Obama administration Friday in retaliation for Moscow's cyber-meddling in the presidential election.

The U.S. said the two Cold War-era estates were being used for intelligence activities.

About a half-hour before the noon eviction deadline, caravans of diplomatic vehicles, some carrying boxes, left both Russian compounds under the watch of U.S. State Department agents.

The 45-acre Maryland retreat boasts a brick mansion along the Corsica River in the bucolic Eastern Shore region. It was bought by the Soviet Union in 1972 and served as a getaway for its diplomats in nearby Washington.

In New York, Russian diplomatic staff members were evicted from a mansion on Long Island's Gold Coast. The estate, once called Elmcroft, is in the town of Oyster Bay and was purchased by the Soviets in 1952.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters that the Obama administration is destroying holiday fun for the children of Russian diplomats who vacation at the two retreats during their New Year's break.

"I think it's quite scandalous that they chose to go after our kids," Churkin said. He added: "Here go their family values."

President Barack Obama announced the shutdown Thursday as part of a raft of sanctions that included the expulsion of 35 Russians who the U.S. said were spies operating under diplomatic cover.

Neighbors of both compounds described generally friendly relations with the diplomats and their families.

"We coexist with these people peacefully," said Alison Davis, who lives near the Maryland retreat. "It's basically their summer cottage, but we see the diplomat tags driving here all the time, very friendly. We see them biking, say hello."

Still, she said, "They kind of keep to themselves."

She said the compound has a private beach and was typically used for a sailing regatta during the end-of-summer Labor Day weekend.

An Associated Press story from 1992 said the compound had four tennis courts, a swimming pool and a soccer field. A camp was held there for Russian children during the summer and for two weeks each Christmas.

The story said that the brick mansion had been converted into 12 apartments and a dozen cottages, each with four apartments, and that the compound could accommodate 40 families at a time.

Russia maintains two weekend retreats for its U.N. diplomats about an hour's drive outside New York City, where the United Nations has its high-rise headquarters.

One of them, Elmcroft, was built on a part of Long Island made famous in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby."

Its main house originally had 27 rooms and 11 baths and was constructed for an executive at a Brooklyn company that made heavy machinery and torpedoes. Later it became the home of a former New York governor, Nathan Miller.

Satellite photography shows that the grounds today include a tennis court, gardens, a soccer field and another large, modern building.

Penny Hallman, 68, whose home abuts the estate, called the diplomats "wonderful neighbors."

"They brought a bottle of vodka and chocolates to wish us a Merry Christmas," she said. "It's mostly a social club, a vacation spot."

A short drive away, Russian diplomats stay at another grand Gold Coast estate, the Killenworth mansion, not far from the city of Glen Cove. It, too, was bought during the Cold War. Glen Cove Mayor Reggie Spinello said Friday that Killenworth was not being closed down by the government.

Both Long Island properties were the subject of long-running property-tax battles between the Russian government and local officials. Those disputes have been resolved, and for years Oyster Bay has waived parking and beach fees for Russia's U.N. diplomats as a goodwill gesture.

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Balsamo reported from Oyster Bay, New York. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Juliet Linderman in Baltimore contributed to this story.

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This story has been corrected to fix the wording of the quote from Russia's U.N. ambassador.

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