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Moscow courts back closure of three McDonald's branches

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian courts on Wednesday backed the temporary closure of three McDonald's restaurants in Moscow for breaches of sanitary rules, amid a standoff with the West over Ukraine, while the state food safety watchdog suspended work at a fourth.

The three restaurants - on Moscow's Manezh square, under the walls of the Kremlin, at Pushkin Square and on Prospect Mira - have been closed since last week on the orders of the watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor. The court rulings confirmed that decision.

Rospotrebnadzor has introduced sweeping checks, including unscheduled inspections, at McDonald's restaurants across the country.

On Wednesday it ordered the temporary closure of a fourth branch in the capital - the sixth nationwide.

Russian businessmen have said the crackdown is linked to the crisis over Ukraine, which has soured U.S.-Russian relations and led to a round of sanctions and trade restrictions. Rospotrebnadzor has denied that its actions are politically motivated.

McDonald's said it would appeal the court rulings, which ordered the three Moscow branches to be closed for 90 days.

"We do not agree with the courts' decisions and will appeal them according to established procedures. We will continue to take care of our employees and do everything we can to continue successful operations in Russia," said a spokeswoman for the U.S. firm in Russia.

A lawyer representing McDonald's in the court, Maksim Titarenko, was also quoted as saying the courts' decisions to close the branches were unjustified.

"The court has ordered the maximum penalty under this article of the administrative offences code although there are no grounds for it," Interfax news agency quoted Titarenko as saying.

A court in the Urals region delivered a similar ruling on Wednesday when it ordered the closure of a McDonald's restaurant in the city of Yekaterinburg for 85 days, backing the food safety watchdog's decision the day before.

McDonald's operates 440 restaurants in Russia and considers the country one of its top seven markets outside the United States and Canada, according to its 2013 annual report. Almost 1 million people a day visit its restaurants in Russia.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Additional reporting by Natalia Shurmina in Yekaterinburg; Editing by Louise Heavens and Pravin Char)

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