MOSCOW - Russia has pulled out of a long-running US-funded student exchange programme, accusing the organisers of letting a teenager stay behind in the United States in the care of a gay couple.
Moscow's decision to pull the plug on the largest Russia-US high school exchange programme comes amid a showdown with the United States over Ukraine which has also seen President Vladimir Putin try to curb the spread of Western values.
"A child, who has a mother in Russia, has illegally been placed under guardianship, and the boy has been handed over to a US gay couple," Russia's children's ombudsman Pavel Astakhov said on Wednesday.
He said the teenager had "stayed behind in the United States."
"The child hails from a decent family and is healthy so it's unclear what arguments those in the United States have been guided by," said Astakhov, adding that the teenager's mother did not want to release any further details of the case.
Russia does not recognise same-sex marriages and has banned adoptions from countries that legally allow such unions.
The US embassy in Moscow said it could not comment on individual cases but indicated that it regretted the suspension of an exchange programme that served to promote friendly ties.
"At a time of heightened tensions between our countries, people-to-people exchanges such as the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) programme are a means to foster dialogue and respect between people," embassy spokesman Will Stevens told AFP.
US ambassador John Tefft on Tuesday expressed regret that the Russian authorities had suspended a programme that saw over 8,000 Russians study in US high schools over the past two decades.
"We deeply regret this decision by the Russian government to end a programme that for 21 years has built deep and strong connections between the people of Russia and the United States," Tefft said.
The Russian foreign ministry said the programme had helped bypass Russian legislation banning adoptions by gay parents.
"Unfortunately, such an incident has taken place," it said in a statement, saying that Moscow's partners have to respect the "moral and ethical principles of Russian society."
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US government and non-government organisations sponsored a number of exchange programmes for young Russians in a bid to improve ties with the former Cold War enemy.
Many of the Russian students chose not to return.