Qatar-Russia tensions mount over arrests after assassination

Monday, March 1, 2004

ABU DHABI Strained ties between Qatar and Russia have turned to open hostility in wake of the arrest of two Russian diplomats on charges of assassinating a Chechen insurgent in the emirate.

Qatari sources said Russia has been placing severe pressure on the emirate to release the two Russian secret service officers, charged with the car bombing that killed former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Doha on Feb. 13. The sources said Russia has accused Qatar of harboring and supporting Al Qaida-aligned insurgents who have fueled the war in Chechnya.

Over the weekend, Qatar said Russia detained two Qatari nationals in Moscow, Middle East Newsline reported. Qatari sources said the arrest of the Qatari wrestlers on their way to a tournament Serbia to prepare for the 2004 Olympic Games was meant to blackmail Doha into releasing the suspected Russian intelligence agents.

"It seems the Russians are not satisfied with their scandalous assassination of Yandarbiyev, but have added to that piracy and kidnapping of Qatari citizens for the very clear purpose of swapping the Qataris for the Russians," the Doha-based Al Sharq daily said on Sunday.

Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani said the emirate would not respond to Russia's threats. He said Doha was still seeking answers to questions regarding the Russian arrest of the Qatari wrestlers. Qatar and Russia have sought to cooperate on energy issues, particularly the growing liquefied natural gas market.

"There's a murdered man in our country and we are investigating and we will make an announcement at a suitable time," Hamad said.

Russian officials said its nationals being held by Qatar were special service officers attached to the Russian embassy in Doha. They said the officers were not connected to the car bombing that killed Yandarbiyev.

Moscow has sent a team of Russian lawyers to Qatar to defend the security officers in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry. "Russia is intent on protecting the interests of its nationals who are in custody in Qatar, including by providing legal assistance," the ministry said.

Qatar has obtained support from the Gulf Cooperation Council states in the standoff with Russia. On Sunday, GCC foreign ministers said they condemned the assassination of Yandarbiyev.

"The statement was clear in its reference to the incident that happened in Qatar," Kuwaiti Information Minister Mohammed Abu Al Hassan, who represented the sheikdom at the summit, said. "But we do not expect, and we do not hope, that this crisis will lead to the use of force."

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