Latest US-Russia flap caused by fax machine

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The United States said Thursday it has apologized to Russia for slow access to a detained pilot, saying the diplomatic spat was caused simply by an employee dialing the wrong number.

A year after the United States and Russia pressed a symbolic "reset" button on relations, officials said tensions rose when a worker punched the wrong digits on a fax machine to inform Moscow that its citizen had been arrested.

Instead of Russia, the embassy of an unspecified third country received a fax informing the recipient that Russian cargo pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko had been extradited from Liberia on drug and trafficking charges, the State Department said.

"We pressed the wrong button the fax machine, to be brutally frank," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.

"We have apologized to Russia."

Russia's foreign ministry issued a strongly worded statement Wednesday accusing the United States of violating the norms of international law.

"Effectively, we are talking about the kidnapping of a Russian citizen in a third country," it said.

In a telephone interview with Russia's NTV television, Yaroshenko complained of "torture" and "beatings" at a New York jail and said he was deprived of sleep and needed medication.

Crowley referred questions on the case to judicial officials but denied Russian charges that the United States had acted lawlessly.

"I can say that we take our consular notification requirements very seriously," Crowley said. "We made every attempt to comply with our international obligations, including consular access."

He said the two countries had exchanged diplomatic notes and "we do believe that this matter has been resolved."

The United States generally informs foreign nations within 72 hours that it has arrested one of its nationals. Crowley said the Russian was belatedly given consular access, revising an earlier US statement that Russian diplomats saw him immediately after he arrived in New York.

Yaroshenko was among a half dozen people arrested in Liberia in May 28 in a two-year sting operation that included the son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a close US ally, as an undercover mole.

Authorities said that they were caught trying to transport 4,000 kilograms (8,800 pounds) of cocaine.

US prosecutors say that South American drug cartels, facing crackdowns at home, have increasingly been seeking inroads in African nations, where they try to bribe officials to secure safe storage areas and passage.

Pilots trained in the former Soviet Union often travel abroad to work in developing nations where their skills are in demand.

The pilot's case came just weeks after a Cold War-style story of intrigue in which 10 Russian agents were arrested in the United States after going undercover, although some nonetheless maintained a presence on social networking sites such as Facebook.

The 10 agents were swapped in Vienna for four Russians convicted of spying for the United States.

President Barack Obama's administration voiced hope the spy case would not set back relations with Russia, which have been smoother after friction under predecessor George W. Bush, who championed a missile defense plan in Europe.

© 2010 AFP

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