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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spy Spat Brews as Austria Arrests 2

Russia, Austria and Germany could be dragged into a spy dispute after the arrest this week of a suspected Russian agent and an Austrian warrant officer on charges of disclosing state secrets.

Germany wants the Russian citizen, identified as Vladimir V., extradited. But the Russian Embassy in Vienna said Thursday that he was simply a member of an official delegation in Vienna attending the 50th session of the United Nations' Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The embassy filed a protest to the Austrian Foreign Ministry, the mission's spokeswoman, Tatyana Kupalova, said by telephone. She would not elaborate.

A man named Vladimir Vozhzhov of the Federal Space Agency is on the official UN list of 17 Russian delegates at the conference. The space agency's web site says Vozhzhov is the deputy head of its international relations department.

Igor Panarin, spokesman for the Federal Space Agency, told on Thursday morning that the man detained in Austria held a senior position in his organization. He later sought to withdraw his statement, referring media to a press release posted on the space agency's web site. The statement said an agency employee was among members of the delegation attending the Vienna conference, but did not specify whether he had been arrested. It said the agency "was surprised" to read media reports that one of its employees has been detained in Austria and expressed "hope that the situation will be resolved in a positive way in the nearest future."

The Vienna conference began June 6 and ended Thursday.

The Russian suspect was detained at Salzburg's central train station on Monday, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office in Vienna said. The police were acting on a European warrant issued by German federal prosecutors in Karlsruhe, the spokesman, Gerhard Jarosch, said by telephone. He said the suspect had just stepped out of an arriving train in Salzburg. He is now in jail in that city awaiting a ruling by an Austrian court on the extradition request from Germany. A decision was expected late Thursday on whether the man would be kept in prison while awaiting the extradition decision, Jarosch said.

A spokesman for the German federal prosecutor's office confirmed that a European arrest warrant had been issued but would not elaborate, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Austrian magazine News reported Thursday that the Russian had offered 20,000 euros ($26,600) to the Austrian warrant officer to obtain classified information about the helicopter maker Eurocopter. It said he had served as a trade attache at the Russian Embassy in Vienna until 2001. The report also said, without citing a source, that the Russian was arrested together with a Russian female agent and a Eurocopter engineer. It said the woman was released after a "thorough interrogation." Jarosch would not confirm this and said the information "was probably wrong."

A spokeswoman for Eurocopter, a unit of European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., declined comment.

At the same time of the arrest, Austrian law enforcement detained a military technician in the town of Gmunden, about 50 kilometers east of Salzburg. The man, who has not been identified, was stationed at an airbase in H?rsching, near Linz, and is now jailed in Vienna, Jarosch said.

The Austrian Defense Ministry said the suspect had been suspended and an internal investigation had been opened against him. A ministry spokesman, reached by e-mail, refused to give further details.

Austrian newspaper Ober?sterreichische Nachrichten reported that the officer was 51 years old and had been in the garden of his brother's home in Gmunden on Monday afternoon when he was approached suddenly by men who arrested him. The newspaper also said the Austrian armed forces were worried that the man, who served as an officer in a helicopter regiment, might have passed over plans of the Austrian military air surveillance system, including classified radio frequencies, which he could access over his computer.

Austrian media described the Russian suspect as working for either the Foreign Intelligence Service or its military counterpart, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, known by its Russian acronym, GRU. A spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service declined comment Thursday. The reports also said he had traveled to Austria as a private citizen.

The Austrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was working with the UN to determine whether the man had diplomatic immunity at the time of his detention.

In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov said the ministry was looking into the matter and would do its best to protect the Russian's rights and ensure his swift release.

Attempts to reach two other space agency official who attended the Vienna conference were unsuccessful. Vadim Mironov, deputy director of the company Keldysh Center Federal State Enterprise, returned from Austria and was lecturing students at a Moscow university, his secretary said. She said Mironov himself was unavailable for comment. The Keldysh center specializes in the development of software for propulsion systems and spacecraft thermal control systems, its web site said.

The whereabouts of the other delegate, Yury Sobakinskikh, deputy head of a section at the space agency's Federal State Enterprise TsENKI, remained unclear. TsENKI spokesman Igor Denisov said he was "unaware" whether Sobakinskikh was back. He would not elaborate. TsENKI is an institute that specializes in research and development of ground infrastructure for Russia's space program, including launch pads.

The case comes only three weeks after President Vladimir Putin led a delegation of wealthy businessmen on an official visit to Vienna, where he praised Austria as a model partner for energy exports. But it might also add strain to Russia's troubled relations with the European Union, highlighting an upsurge in Moscow's covert foreign intelligence operations that U.S. officials say have reached Cold War levels.

Intelligence experts believe that since Putin became president in 2000, Russia has rebuilt its network of agents, which was depleted during the country's transition from communism, the Sunday Times of London reported last month.

Canada in December deported a Russian citizen accused of being a spy for Moscow.