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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Austria Scolded and Implored Over Arrest

Austria's arrest of a high-ranking space official on spy charges is putting considerable strain on relations between Moscow and Vienna, which President Vladimir Putin had just last month praised as "problem-free."

The Foreign Ministry issued a harsh statement Friday calling the detention "an unfriendly act that harms bilateral relations."

Austrian Ambassador Martin Vukovich was called to the ministry and asked to convey to Vienna a request from Russia for the official's release.

But the Austrian side made it clear that the case was a matter for the courts, which are independent of politics, embassy spokesman Hannes Schreiber said.

The suspect, identified by Austrian investigators as Vladimir V., was detained last Monday on a German warrant as he arrived in Salzburg by train. He is accused of offering an Austrian warrant officer 20,000 euros ($26,600) for classified information, according to Austrian media reports.

The spy dispute is unfolding just three weeks after Putin lauded Austria as a model partner in energy exports during an official two-day visit.

In an apparent reference to the good fundamentals of bilateral relations, Schreiber said the Foreign Ministry had abstained from formally summoning Vukovich but had merely "invited" the ambassador to a meeting.

Vienna prosecutors insist that the suspect be tried in Austria. "We want to put him on trial," prosecutor's office spokesman Gerhard Jarosch said by telephone from Vienna.

Jarosch said the Russian's imprisonment had been sanctioned by a court and that he would be transferred from Salzburg to a prison in Vienna. Within two weeks, another court in the Austrian capital would decide whether to extend his custody, he said.

He said a German extradition request was stalled as long as Austria's investigation was ongoing.

Jarosch stressed that the Russian was not protected by diplomatic immunity. "His passport just identified him as a government employee. It was no diplomatic passport," he said.

Moscow, however, insists that the suspect has diplomatic status because he was a member of an official Russian delegation attending a United Nations conference in Vienna.

The Foreign Ministry criticized the arrest as a breach of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. "The incident does not strengthen Austria's authority as a seat of UN institutions," the ministry statement said. The Russian Embassy in Vienna had earlier filed a protest with the Austrian Foreign Ministry.

Schreiber, the Austrian Embassy spokesman, said a passport type did not necessarily define the bearer's legal status. He said the Austrian government was working together with the UN on the question of whether diplomatic immunity applied.

While the suspect's full name has not been revealed, he appears to be Vladimir Vozhzhov, one of 17 Russians on the official list of participants at the 50th session of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which took place from June 6 to 14. Vladimir Vozhzhov is the deputy head of the Federal Space Agency's international relations department, according to the agency's web site.

Space agency spokesman Igor Panarin told Rossia television that the suspect was in good health and that he hoped the situation would be settled favorably soon.

Staff members at Vozhzhov's department, reached by telephone Friday, said they were expecting him back from a business trip to Austria later this week.

Two other space agency officials who attended the conference said they had not seen Vozhzhov there. The two, Vadim Mironov and Yury Sobakinskikh, said they had not known Vozhzhov was at the conference and learned about the arrest from media reports, Gazeta.ru reported. A third delegate, agency analyst Dmitry Paison, said he had not been aware of the news because he had been busy "arranging an exhibition."

Vozhzhov's precise role at the space agency was unclear. Gazeta.ru reported that he had worked in the agency since the beginning of the decade and that he traveled to Europe frequently. In January, he received an official award for his contribution to international space cooperation, the report said. The Vienna-based magazine News wrote that Vozhzhov served as trade commissioner at the Russian Embassy in Vienna until 2001.

A deputy trade commissioner at the Russian mission in Vienna was recalled in April 2001 after his spying activities for the Russian Military Intelligence Service, or GRU, were uncovered, an official Austrian government report said.

It remained unclear Sunday what exactly the Russian could have gotten from the Austrian warrant officer, a helicopter technician who was detained last Monday, in Linz, Austria.

The Wiener Zeitung, a paper published by the Austrian government, reported that the warrant officer had access to the latest radar surveillance technology from Germany.

News said the case involved classified material from Eurocopter, a German-based unit of space and aviation giant EADS. But the Austrians do not use any equipment from Eurocopter and the company has declined any comment.

A spokesman for the Austrian Defense Ministry also declined to give details. Asked whether the case was more about military or industrial espionage, he merely said that there where "different lines of investigation." The Austrian military intelligence service is also looking into the case, he said.

Austria has a history of serving as operation ground for secret agents, epitomized in the famous 1949 noir film "The Third Man," based on a novel by Graham Greene. The Austrian Interior Ministry said in its official state security report for 2006 that foreign intelligence services were particularly active in Austria because of the high number of international organizations based there and because of its geopolitical location.

The Russian delegation to the UN space congress included at least one other person with ties to the intelligence services, Gazeta.ru reported. It said Alexander Zhdanovich, first secretary to Russia's permanent mission to the United Nations in Vienna, was a former spokesman for the Federal Security Service.

Vienna is one of four major UN sites and hosts a number of UN institutions, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Narcotics Control Board.