Lithuania demands Austrian explanation for suspect's release

16th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Lithuania demanded Saturday a "convincing explanation" from Austria for freeing a Russian wanted over a bloody 1991 Soviet crackdown on the Baltic states independence drive.

Hinting at Russian involvement, Vilnius said it received confirmation from Vienna that Mikhail Golovatov was freed less than two days after he was arrested in the Austrian capital on Thursday.

"We are waiting for a convincing Austrian explanation as to the reasons that led to this decision and why the decision was taken so promptly," Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said in a statement.

A diplomat who asked not to be named told AFP: "We have suspicions Russia put pressure on Austria."

Lithuania was to present a formal note to Austrias ambassador on Monday.

But Austria's justice ministry said Golovatov was freed because the European warrant for his arrest was vague.

"The allegations listed in the warrant are not sufficient for a detention order," ministry spokesman Peter Puller said.

Austrian prosecutors had requested additional information from Vilnius, "but nothing concrete was forthcoming," he said.

A diplomatic source said Austria had asked Golovatov to leave the country, adding he had "probably" gone to Russia.

In 1991 Golovatov headed the so-called Alpha Group, a special unit that stormed the main TV tower in Vilnius, a focal point of the anti-Soviet freedom movement.

At least 14 civilians died and hundreds were injured in the attack on the Vilnius television tower on January 13 that year.

The killings came after the state-controlled media had swung behind Sajudis, the freedom movement founded in 1988, two years before Lithuania declared independence.

News of Golovatov's release came just after Azubalis spoke to his Austrian counterpart Michael Spindelegger on Friday evening.

During the call, the Lithuanian minister said it was "a question of national importance" that justice is done in the so-called "January 13" case, said the statement.

Golovatov was suspected of crimes against humanity and war crimes and could face up to life imprisonment if found guilty by a Lithuanian court.

Six Lithuanian Soviet-era officials were convicted and jailed in the 1990s for their role in the crackdown, but Lithuania has been unable to try a few dozen other suspects believed to be hiding in Russia and Belarus.

Earlier this year, prosecutors said they wanted to question ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who was in power from 1985 to 1991 as the Soviet Union unravelled.

Ties between Lithuania, a nation of three million, and Russia have been rocky since independence, notably since Vilnius joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.

© 2011 AFP

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