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By Gabriela Baczynska

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Eight former U.S. and Russian ambassadors on Tuesday urged swift action to improve relations between Washington and Moscow, which are at odds over issues ranging from Syria to human rights.

Ties between the Cold War foes have soured since Vladimir Putin returned to Russia's presidency in May, undermining U.S. President Barack Obama's attempt to "reset" relations.

"We found disturbing the recent deterioration in the atmosphere of relations and the growing trend towards a focus on issues that divide us," said the ambassadors, four Americans who served in Moscow and four Russians who served in Washington.

Disagreements between the two veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council over the conflict in Syria, where more than 70,000 people have been killed in two years, have been a factor frustrating hopes for a solution there.

Putin, who accuses the United States of using human rights as a geopolitical tool, was angered by a U.S. law adopted in December to punish Russians deemed rights abusers by barring them from the United States and freezing their assets there.

Russia responded with similar measures and also banned U.S. couples from adopting Russian-born children. Moscow ejected the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) last October and has clamped down on foreign-funded advocacy groups.

"Legislation enacted in both countries does not help the desirable expansion of contacts and engagement between our societies," the ambassadors said in a statement after three days of meetings in Moscow. "This matter calls for urgent attention."

They expressed hope a U.S. decision to scale down plans for a European anti-missile shield could ease tension.

The two nations "should urgently take advantage of the opportunity to end the division BMD (ballistic missile defense) has brought to relations for more than a decade," they said.

"We need to put the accent on areas of agreement and work backwards from that to get at the parts in which we don't agree yet," John Beyrle, U.S. ambassador from 2008 through the beginning of 2012, said in presenting the joint statement.

Other former ambassadors were Americans Jack Matlock, James Collins and Thomas Pickering and Russians Vladimir Lukin, Alexander Bessmertnykh, Yuri Dubinin and Viktor Komplektov.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Jason Webb)

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