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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Battles More Snags in Bid to Free Airmen

Foreign Ministry officials said Wednesday that freedom is in sight for seven Russian airmen being detained by Afghan rebels, but the crew's liberation has run into repeated snags over the New Year's holidays.

Deputy Foreign Minister Albert Chernyshev told Interfax he was confident that the crew would be released "within a week."

A similar statement was made last week by Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigory Karasin, who told reporters Thursday that the liberation would occur in "a matter of a few days."

The Taliban oppositionists, who have held the Russians since Aug. 3, had planned to free their hostages Saturday.

Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev was ordered to Kandahar to meet with the captors and preside over the release. But his trip was canceled at the last minute when the Taliban, an Islamic student organization, balked at the timing. A working group led by Yury Kotov, head of the Foreign Ministry's Third Asia division, was sent to negotiate.

But Kotov's delegation returned to Moscow on New Year's Eve without ever seeing the Taliban representatives in Kandahar.

"The meeting was not held because the Taliban members failed to agree on the time for the crew's liberation," Chernyshev said.

He emphasized that there was no disagreement in principle to releasing the crew -- the problem was in the timing. While more "conscientious" or liberal forces within Taliban argued for immediate release, more radical elements favor postponement, Chernyshev said.

The Taliban rebels had previously demanded information on missing Afghans allegedly being held by force in Russia. But Chernyshev said the rebels had dropped this condition, although, he added, the Russian Federation remained willing to cooperate by providing any information it has at its disposal.

Last week President Boris Yeltsin sent Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Posuvalyuk with a message to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, a backer of the Taliban rebels. Western diplomats in Moscow said they believed one purpose of the mission was to seek Saudi help in gaining release of the airmen.

There has, as yet, been no rescheduling of Kozyrev,s trip; Interfax reported Wednesday that Kotov and his delegation would fly to Kandahar as soon as there were positive developments.

The foreign minister's fate remains in doubt. Kozyrev was elected to the Duma, parliament's lower house, as a deputy from the Murmansk region; under theConstitution, he cannot hold both a Duma mandate and a ministerial post.

After conferring with Yeltsin Dec. 27, Kozyrev told reporters that a decision would be made at a later date.

But Nikolai Ryabov, chairman of the Central Election Commission, has informed the foreign minister that a decision must be made by the weekend.

Valery Zorkin, formerly chairman and now member of the Constitutional Court, told Interfax that exceptions allowing deputies to combine civil service jobs with parliamentary obligations held only for the old Duma.

This time, Zorkin said, it is illegal.

There has been much speculation that Kozyrev is on his way out of the Foreign Ministry. He has been roundly criticized by hardline forces in the government for excessive subservience to the West. In October, the president told reporters that he had decided to sack Kozyrev; one day later, he retracted his statement, saying that all the foreign minister needed was a good deputy.

Kozyrev has left for a brief vacation, and is not due back until Monday, Interfax reported.