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Putin rules out expelling diplomats, wishes Obama a Happy New Year and invites children of US diplomats to Kremlin party

Russia will not 'stoop to irresponsible diplomacy'

Vladimir Putin has ruled out expelling US diplomats in the wake of fresh US sanctions and the ordered expulsion of 35 Russians in retaliation for alleged cyber-meddling in the US election.

The Russian president also said that his country will not target US diplomats and their families days before New Year’s celebrations.

"Russian diplomats will spend the New Year holidays in the circle of relatives and friends - at home. We will not create problems for American diplomats. We will not expel anyone.

"We will not prohibit their families and children to use their usual vacation spots in the New Year's holidays. Moreover, all children of American diplomats accredited in Russia, I invite you to New Year's celebrations in the Kremlin."

Calling the US moves a "provocation", Putin said he would not "stoop to the level of irresponsible diplomacy".

Putin said he regretted that Obama is ending his term “in such a way,” and wished him, Donald Trump and the American people a happy New Year.

He said: "It is a pity that the Obama administration ends his term in such a way, but, nevertheless, I wish him and his family a Happy New Year.

"I congratulate President-elect Donald Trump and the entire American people! I wish all health and prosperity!"

The Kremlin said that a government plane will be sent to the US to evacuate the expelled diplomats and their families.

Nigel Farage was among those praising Putin's response. "Pleased to see a mature response from Putin," the ex-Ukip leader wrote on Twitter. "A @realDonaldTrump presidency can't come soon enough."

The diplomatic showdown between Washington and Moscow, which had been festering even before the November 8 presidential election saw Donald Trump elevated to the presidency, puts pressure on the billionaire businessman not to let Russia off the hook after he takes office on January 20.

Russia's government continues to deny US accusations that it hacked and stole emails to try to help Mr Trump defeat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

On Thursday US president Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and ordered more sanctions against Russian officials and intelligence services in response to alleged 'election hacking'.

"All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions. These data theft and disclosure activities could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government," Obama said.

"Moreover, our diplomats have experienced an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year.

"We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicised."

The diplomats were given 72 hours to leave US soil.

"These actions were taken to respond to Russian harassment of American diplomats and actions by the diplomats that we have assessed to be not consistent with diplomatic practice," an unnamed official told Reuters.

Russia's foreign ministry said the moves were counterproductive and will harm the restoration of bilateral ties.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said: "In our point of view such actions of the US current administration are a manifestation of an unpredictable and even aggressive foreign policy.

"We regret the fact that this decision was taken by the US administration and President Obama personally. As was said before, we consider this decision and these sanctions unjustified and illegal under international law.

Mr Peskov warned that the restrictions won’t go unanswered by Moscow promising “adequate, reciprocal” reaction “that will deliver significant discomfort to the US side in the same areas.” However, he added that "there’s no need to rush".

Putin has previously denied the hacking claims and called on Obama and his administration to either provide evidence or stop making accusations.

The move ensures action before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

The move also puts Mr Trump in the position of having to decide whether to roll back the measures once in office and could potentially cause difficulties for his nominees during their confirmation hearings in the Senate, where support for sanctioning Russia is strong.

"We have to sanction Russia for these cyber attacks (and) send a clear message to the incoming administration that there is a lot of bipartisan support in Congress for going after this," Senator Amy Klobuchar told the Associated Press (AP) by phone from Latvia while on a trip to discuss security issues, including cyber security, with eastern European allies.

She said politicians on both sides were in favour of quick action.

Ms Klobuchar joined Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham on their visits to the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia - all Russian neighbours - as well as Montenegro.

Russia responded angrily in anticipation of the announcement and suggested it might retaliate against US diplomats.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called it a last blow by President Barack Obama to US-Russia relations, and added: "We are tired of lies about Russian hackers that continue to be spread in the United States from the very top."

"If Washington takes new hostile steps, it will receive an answer," Ms Zakharova said in a statement.

"This applies to any actions against Russian diplomatic missions in the United States, which will immediately backfire at US diplomats in Russia."

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Russian officials have denied the Obama administration's accusation that the Russian government was involved at the highest levels in trying to influence the US presidential election.

A secret CIA report concluded that Russia's goal was to help Mr Trump win - an assessment Mr Trump has dismissed as ridiculous.

The claims previously drew a rebuke from Trump’s transition team, which said in a statement: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."

“Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!” Trump tweeted previously.

Mr Trump rejected the CIA's conclusion that Russia tried to interfere with the presidential election and blamed "very embarrassed" Democrats for the public release of the assessment. The Washington Post first reported the CIA finding on Friday.

"It's ridiculous," Mr Trump said of the CIA's assessment. He added, however, that he does not necessarily oppose President Barack Obama's order for a review of campaign-season hacking. "If you're going to do that, I think you should not just say 'Russia'. You should say other countries also, and maybe other individuals."

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Julian Assange: Russian government not source of leaked DNC and Podesta emails - WikiLeaks editor contradicts CIA claims in new interview  

The US has already sanctioned Russia over Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine.

WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange has denied that emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta were hacked and leaked to his organisation by the Russian government.

In an interview with Sean Hannity he was asked: "So in other words, let me be clear...Russia did not give you the Podesta documents or anything from the DNC?"

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The Australian founder of the whistleblowing website, who has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for over four years, responded: "That's correct."

Assange said: "We’re unhappy that we felt that we needed to even say that it wasn’t a state party. Normally, we say nothing at all.

"We have ... a strong interest in protecting our sources, and so we never say anything about them, never ruling anyone in or anyone out.

"And so here, in order to prevent a distraction attack against our publications, we’ve had to come out and say ‘no, it’s not a state party. Stop trying to distract in that way and pay attention to the content of the publication," he told Hannity.

Assange also revealed that WikiLeaks received "about three pages of information to do with the [Republican National Committee] and Donald Trump [during the campaign], but it was already public somewhere else."

Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, who is a close associate of Assange, also dismissed the CIA's claims that Russia was the source of the emails as "bulls***".

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The accounts by Murray and Assange directly contradict the story advanced by the CIA.

The Washington Post reported on a 'secret assessment' by the CIA, which concluded that Russian intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee's servers and that of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta, specifically to help Trump win the presidency.

Mr Murray said: "I know who leaked them. I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it's an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things.

“If what the CIA are saying is true, and the CIA’s statement refers to people who are known to be linked to the Russian state, they would have arrested someone if it was someone inside the United States.

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“America has not been shy about arresting whistleblowers and it’s not been shy about extraditing hackers. They plainly have no knowledge whatsoever.”

He then revealed to Dailymail.com that he had flown to Washington DC for a secret hand-off with one of the sources in September.

He said that he met an intermediary in a wooded area near a US university to retrieve a package.

Intelligence assessments

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which oversees the 17 agency-strong US intelligence community, has not embraced the CIA's assessment, sources have told Reuters.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose standards require it to make cases that can stand up in court, also declined to accept the CIA's analysis.

In an angry letter sent to ODNI chief  James Clapper on Monday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said he was “dismayed” that the top US intelligence official had not informed the panel of the CIA's analysis and the difference between its judgment and the FBI’s assessment, Reuters reported.

"ODNI is not arguing that the agency (CIA) is wrong, only that they can't prove intent," one of the officials told the news agency. "Of course they can't, absent agents in on the decision-making in Moscow.”

The ODNI was formed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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'Thin reed'

“[It was] a thin reed upon which to base an analytical judgment,” another official said in response to the speculation. He stressed that the “judgment based on the fact that Russian entities hacked both Democrats and Republicans and only the Democratic information was leaked.”

Republican Senator John McCain said on Monday there was "no information" that Russian hacking of US political organisations was aimed at influencing the election.

"It's obvious that the Russians hacked into our campaigns," McCain said told Reuters.

"But there is no information that they were intending to affect the outcome of our election and that's why we need a congressional investigation."

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