Kosovo Crisis: Russia denies sending MiGs

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The Independent Online
A RUSSIAN cargo plane has been held in Azerbaijan for five days amid official allegations that it was carrying fighter jets to Yugoslavia, violating an international arms embargo.

The accusation, which drew an indignant denial from Moscow, came after Azeri customs found the plane, an AN-124, was carrying six MiG combat aircraft, military equipment, and a team of 30 pilots and technicians.

One of the most senior officials in Azerbaijan's government, Vafa Guluzade, said the aircraft was bound for Yugoslavia - a claim which, if true, would suggest a breach of the international arms embargo in force against Belgrade.

Reports from the region yesterday said the aircraft touched down in the Caspian city of Baku on Thursday to refuel, but was barred from leaving by officials after they found it was loaded with combat jets.

News of the aircraft's detention became public yesterday as Russia's Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, flew from Moscow to Washington to lobby for more loans from the International Monetary Fund to help Russia overcome its economic problems.

Mr Primakov fended off questions about the jets during a stopover in Ireland, en route to talks with President Bill Clinton. He told reporters that Russia had not broken the arms embargo. "We have not broken the sanctions yet," he said, before reiterating Moscow's opposition to Nato air strikes against Yugoslavia.

His denials are likely to get a fair hearing in Washington as it would seem to be against Moscow's interests to supply fighter planes to Yugoslavia at a time when Russia desperately needs Western financial help to avoid further debt defaults, and even deeper economic misery.

However, there are rogue hardline elements within the Russian military. And there have been cases of Russian military equipment - including Soviet- era helicopters and submarines - being sold by criminals on the black market.

As Mr Primakov moved quickly yesterday to put out this latest fire, back home in Moscow another one had taken hold. In an unprecedented move, the chief prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov - still smarting from being caught on video with two prostitutes - sent a team into the Kremlin to seize documents as part of a corruption probe. Mr Yeltsin has been pressing for Mr Skuratov's resignation amid a deepening political battle in Moscow which has drawn in parliament, the central bank, a leading oligarch, the premier, and the presidency.

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