Tajikistan releases pilots to end Russia row

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A Tajik court on Tuesday released a Russian and an Estonian pilot whose lengthy jailings sparked an unprecedented standoff between Moscow and the ex-Soviet Union's poorest state.

Vladimir Sadovnichy of Russia and Alexey Rudenko of Estonia were freed by the court in the town of Kurgan Tyube after having their jail sentence slashed to two-and-a-half years, amnestied and credited with time already served.

The second hearing came just weeks after the two were jailed for 8.5 years for smuggling -- after which Russia rounded up hundreds of Tajik migrant workers in an apparent tit-for-tat response.

Migrants organisations said at least 1,500 Tajiks had been detained nationwide while Human Rights Watch called on Russia "to refrain from singling out any ethnic population for expulsion."

Russian authorities never officially linked the action to the court ruling but Tajik President Emomali Rahmon immediately called on his government to come find a "positive" resolution to the escalating row.

The Russian pilot expressed relief while still showing unease at being convicted of illegal trespassing and smuggling despite denying both charges.

"The main thing is that I am free," he said after the hearing outside in the courtyard.

"My first wish is to return home as soon as possible and see my family. This was a harsh charge, which has not been lifted."

But a source in the Russian foreign ministry immediately indicated that the release should help restore Moscow's relations with the volatile state on the border with Afghanistan.

"This, of course, is a great success," the Russian diplomat told the Interfax news agency. "We believe that justice has prevailed with our citizen's release."

The pilots were flying through Tajik airspace from Afghanistan when they requested to make an emergency landing -- a request that was denied because their flight was allegedly not registered with Tajik authorities.

Tajikistan was wrecked by a brutal civil war in the early 1990s and then experienced nearly two decades of ethnic tensions and endemic drugs trafficking that hampered sustainable growth.

Its economy remains in tatters and some analysts estimate that up to half of Tajikistan's young male population is currently trying to make a living in Moscow and other major Russian cities.

The incident tested Moscow's resolve to maintain its influence in Central Asia while also threatening the livelihoods of Tajiks who make wages in Russia that are then sent back home.

"We want to see the pilots freed. This is what all the simply citizens of Tajikistan want," said 53-year-old local Rakmatillo Rakhimov.

"We do not want our work migrants to be bothered or harassed in Russia," Rakhimov said.

"We also want Russian President (Dmitry) Medvedev to publish a special decree defending our migrants."

© 2011 AFP

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