Latvia protests Austria's release of Russian 1991 suspect

19th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Latvia on Tuesday waded into a bitter dispute between fellow EU members Lithuania and Austria over Vienna's release of a Russian who Vilnius wants to try over a bloody 1991 Soviet crackdown.

"Latvian Foreign Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis summoned the Austrian ambassador and handed over a note regarding this issue," President Andris Berzins told reporters during a visit to neighbouring Lithuania.

"Latvia fully understands this situation. I personally was in a very similar situation in January 1991 and I fully support your country's approach and position," Berzins said alongside Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.

On Monday, Lithuania recalled its ambassador from Austria amid blame-trading over Vienna's decision to free Mikhail Golovatov, commander in 1991 of Soviet forces involved in an assault that claimed 14 civilian lives and injured hundreds.

Golovatov, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, faces a life sentence if convicted in Lithuania.

Speculation is raging that Russian pressure led Austria to free him less than 24 hours after Thursday's arrest at Vienna airport on an European Union warrant issued by Lithuania.

Lithuania has said it will call Austria to account before the 27-nation EU's justice authorities.

Defending its move, Austria has said it let Golovatov go because Lithuania failed to provide details of its case against him in time.

Lithuania in turn claims Austrian law allows 48 hours of detention and that it supplied details within seven hours of Austria's request, which came a day after Golovatov's arrest.

Grybauskaite has slammed Austria's "rush" to free Golovatov, calling it "politically unjustifiable" and a blow to EU legal cooperation.

Golovatov led the Alpha Group, a Soviet elite unit that stormed the TV tower in Vilnius on January 13, 1991 as Moscow tried to cow Lithuania after its 1990 secession from the Soviet Union.

Seven civilians died in a crackdown by other Soviet units in Latvia on January 20.

The Baltic trio, who joined the EU and NATO in 2004, have had rocky ties with Moscow since independence.

© 2011 AFP

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