Russia expels Israeli military attache for 'spying'
Russia has expelled Israel's military attache at its Moscow embassy on spying allegations, the Israeli military said on Wednesday, dismissing the charges as unfounded.
"The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) military attache and ministry of defence representative in Russia, an IDF colonel, was detained for investigation last week by Russian authorities, on suspicion of spying," a joint statement by the defence ministry and the military spokesman's office said.
The statement did not name the man, who it said had been due to complete his posting in two months.
"Security authorities in Israel completed a thorough investigation and concluded that these claims were unfounded," it added.
Military sources identified the envoy as air force Colonel Vadim Leiderman and said he returned to Israel several days ago after being questioned by Russian authorities over espionage allegations and then told to leave the country immediately.
Israel's state-run Channel One television said he was arrested while sitting at a cafe with a Russian.
"He was suspected by the Russians of running several local residents," the network said.
"He was taken in for questioning in Moscow about 10 days ago, the police asked him some questions. Because of his diplomatic immunity they were not able to do more but he was asked to immediately leave the country and he did so," it added.
It said that in Israel he was "cleared of all suspicion" after interrogation by his military superiors and by agents of the Shin Bet security agency.
Ynet, the website of top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot, said Leiderman "maintains that the allegations are baseless and false and that the entire incident is rooted in a misunderstanding."
"The past few days have seen hectic efforts by Israel to appease Moscow and stop the already grave diplomatic incident from escalating further, but the Russians seem adamant to exhaust all the legal measures at their disposal against the officer.
"Israel has substantial political and security interests in Russia and is now concentrating on damage control," Ynet said.
Israel daily Haaretz's website said Leiderman "was arrested during a May 12 meeting, in what appeared to be a violation of his diplomatic immunity."
It said news of the affair was blocked in Israel until Wednesday evening by a court gag order.
On a visit to Moscow in March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to persuade Russia to scale down its nuclear cooperation with Iran and its arms sales to Syria, both seen in Israel as strategic threats.
Russia is a key supplier of arms to the Arab world and has agreed to send a large shipment of anti-ship Yakhont cruise missiles to Syria -- a country still technically at war with Israel.
Israeli officials fear the shipment will ultimately land in the hands of the Syrian-supported Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Haaretz said Leiderman's arrest was not the first of its kind.
"In the early 1990s, Mossad representative Reuven Daniel was arrested in a Moscow subway station after he had purchased satellite images from a firm that was part of the Russian military intelligence," it said.
"During his arrest, Russian security officials disregarded Daniel's immunity, in an interrogation that included a severe beating. He was then transferred to a local police station, released, and declared persona non grata," it said, adding Leiderman had suffered no physical abuse.
© 2011 AFP