Black smoke billows from Russian consulate in San Francisco

Russian consulate
Two unidentified people place a Russian flag from a window at the Consulate General of Russia in San Francisco. Photo credit: Reuters

Russian diplomats have now vacated three official properties in the United States, including the consulate in San Francisco.

The decision to close the Russian facilities was ordered by the Trump administration, and is the latest in a string of retaliatory acts taken in response to US allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

It's thought the move was imposed in retaliation for Moscow cutting the American diplomatic presence in Russia.

Staff at the San Francisco consulate were seen moving equipment, furniture and items from the building into minivans on Sunday (NZT) and leaving, before coming back for more around half an hour later. 

But black smoke was seen billowing from a chimney at the consulate, prompting the city's fire department to tweet "the Russian embassy had a fire alarm NOT A FIRE everything is okay".

Images of the black smoke posted on social media invoked speculation that diplomatic staff inside were burning sensitive documents.

US representative Jackie Speier tweeted "If there ever was doubt that espionage was going on in the SF consulate, black smoke clears the air on the issue".

Responding to online speculation over the cause of the smoke, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said emergency conservation of the building had been underway.

She wrote on Facebook that measures were being taken to "preserve the building".

"Therefore the windows may be closed, the curtains may be lowered, the light may be turned off, the doors may be locked, garbage may be disposed of, heating devices may be switched off, life support systems switched on, and much more."

Ms Zakharova critiqued the order to the outposts as "yet another blatant violation of international law".

She said Russian staff and their families who lived at the consulate were ordered to leave the building for 12 hours on Sunday while "US secret services" searched it.

The closure of the consulate and two buildings housing Russian trade missions in Washington and New York have further plunged relations between the two countries to a new post-Cold War low.

The State Department said the Russian government had complied with the order to close operations by Sunday, and said no diplomats were being expelled as result of the closures.

In July, following a Kremlin order, the US cut its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia by more than half, to 455 people, to reflect the number of Russian diplomats in the United States, after the US Congress approved new sanctions against Russia.

Those sanctions were imposed as punishment for what US intelligence agencies concluded was Moscow's interference in the 2016 US presidential election, as well as Russia's annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.