The BBC's Moscow correspondent has said she was told by the Russian authorities that she "can't ever come back to Russia" after her visa was not renewed and she was effectively expelled from the country.

Sarah Rainsford was told that she would have to leave the country when her current visa expires this month, at a time of simmering tensions between Russia and the West and a crackdown on independent media.

"This is not a failure to renew my visa, although technically that's kind of what it is. I'm being expelled, and I've been told that I can't come back ever," Ms Rainsford told BBC Radio 4.

The journalist called the decision "devastating personally" and "shocking."

"It's not just any old place" she said.

"It's almost a third of my life that I've lived in Russia... I've really loved trying to tell the story of Russia to the world, but it is increasingly a difficult story to tell."

The BBC yesterday accused Russia of "a direct assault on media freedom" and said Ms Rainsford was an "exceptional and fearless journalist."

Officially the Russians have linked the decision to difficulties Russian journalists have had in obtaining or extending visas from the UK.

Ms Rainsford said she hold also been told that it was connected to sanctions imposed by the UK on Russian nationals for corruption and for human rights violations in Chechnya.

However, she said she believed that it was another sign of the way the country was increasingly turning in on itself.

"There were clear signs for Russian media, there have been really serious problems in recent days and weeks for Russian independent journalists," she said.

"But until now, for the foreign press, we'd kind of been excluded from that, somehow shielded from all of that, but this is I think a clear sign that things have changed.

"It is another really bad sign about the state of affairs in Russia and another downward turn in the relationship between Russia and the world and a sign that Russia is increasingly closing in on itself."

She said it appeared that the Russians preferred not to allow foreign journalists, like her, who could speak the language and communicate directly with people in the country.

"It is much easier to have fewer people here who understand and can talk directly to people and hear directly people's stories and to relate them," she said.

"It is much easier to have people who perhaps don't speak the language, don't know the country so deeply.

"I just think it is indicative of a really increasingly difficult and repressive environment."

Russia said the expulsion of Ms Rainsford was "retaliation" for the British government denying accreditation to an unnamed Russian reporter.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said "the saga goes back" to summer 2019, when a Russian reporter had to leave the UK for visa reasons "without explanation."

Ms Zakharova added: "I will say this again: the Russian move is exclusively retaliation. It has nothing to with freedom of speech."

In a statement on Facebook, Ms Zakharova accused the UK of "turning the affair on its head" and the BBC of peddling propaganda.

Ms Zakharova said that Ms Rainsford will be given a visa after the Russian reporter is allowed back into the UK. She did not name the Russian reporter or the media organisation behind the journalist.

Two days before the expulsion was announced, Ms Rainsford asked Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko - Belarus's leader - about a violent crackdown on protesters in Minsk.

Mr Lukashenko then accused her of being backed by the United States in an unprecedented speech against the BBC.

Additional reporting PA