Moscow Says 'Misunderstanding' Caused US Senators' Holdup

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Russia apologized Monday to two U.S. senators who were held in an airport in the Urals for several hours after local officials refused to allow their U.S. military aircraft to depart without an inspection.

The delegation, led by Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, was held up at the Perm airport Sunday as it tried to leave Russia after visiting nuclear weapons-related facilities.

Perm border guards reportedly insisted on inspecting the group's DC-9 jet, and U.S. officials refused, citing a joint U.S.-Russian agreement exempting military planes from inspection. Russian officials asked for proof that the jet was a military plane, and the flight was eventually allowed to leave for Ukraine.

The Americans arrived in Moscow on Friday for meetings with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Lugar, chairman of the Senate's foreign relations committee, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) then visited a nuclear warhead storage site in Saratov and a missile disposal site in Perm.

Missiles are stored under the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which provides funding to enable the Russians to destroy non-conventional weapons.

Russia's foreign ministry Monday formally apologized for the Perm incident.

"We regret that a misunderstanding has taken place and the discomfort experienced by senators," it said in a statement.

The ministry denied that the lawmakers were detained, saying the departure was instead "delayed as local border guard authorities had questions concerning some formalities and the status of the flight. After the diplomatic status of the flight was confirmed, the senators left Russia."

A slightly different interpretation came from the deputy head of the border checkpoint at the airport, Captain Maksim Zhaleyev, who told Interfax the senators were "detained" because they had refused to obey border guards' instructions.

The RIA Novosti news agency quoted a Russian Federal Security Service official as saying the aircraft was delayed because Perm airport is not included in the Open-Skies Agreement in place between the U.S. and Russia.

Moscow sought to downplay the incident, which Mikhail Margelov, head of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, said would hopefully not affect Russian-American relations.

"We know Lugar well, and he is also our colleague," Margelov added.

Some media outlets pointed out, however, that Lugar has been critical of the pace of democratization in Russia.

"Scandalous American senator detained in Perm," declared the news site, linking Lugar to resolutions calling for Russia's expulsion from the Group of Eight industrialized nations.

The Perm incident is the latest in a series of bilateral spats. Earlier this month, Moscow lashed out the ABC television network for airing an interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, accusing the U.S. of practicing double standards in its approach to terrorism.

Last July, top Russian officials were angered by a visit to Washington by a wanted Russian businessman, describing it as unfriendly and shameful.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was delayed for four hours at the Irkutsk airport in a separate incident on Sunday after his plane's flight plan was delayed. His spokesman said, however, that Hagel had no problems leaving Russia.

The senator had been touring natural gas deposits in the region.

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