MOSCOW (Reuters)–Russia denied on Tuesday that a Russian cargo plane seized in Azerbaijan carrying MiG jet fighters had been bound for Yugoslavia in breach of an international arms embargo against Belgrade.
Azerbaijan earlier announced it had detained the giant Antonov AN-124 plane – known as a "Ruslan"–after it stopped last week in the capital Baku to refuel en route to Yugoslavia.
"We know that a Ruslan airplane belonging to the Russian airline Polyot was detained at Baku airport," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin told a news briefing.
"The plane was carrying a Kazakh cargo en route for Pratislava (capital of Slovakia)…Efforts are under way to learn the cause of the incident," Rakhmanin added.
Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–speaking to reporters during a stopover in Shannon–Ireland–on his way to the United States–also denied Russia had broken the Yugoslav arms embargo.
"We have not broken the sanctions yet," he said.
An official at Russia’s defense ministry told RIA news agency Moscow had not supplied any arms or military technology to the Yugoslav Federation.
But confusion persisted about the plane’s destination. A Western aviation source cited Baku airport officials as saying the Ruslan’s documentation said it had been traveling from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan to North Korea.
The officials could not say why the plane had ended up in Azerbaijan–which lies far to the west of either country.
Vafa Guluzade–an adviser to Azerbaijan’s President Haydar Aliyev–told Reuters the Ruslan had been bound for Yugoslavia–which has been subject to an arms embargo since its violent break-up began in the early 1990s.
"We have detained a Russian ‘Ruslan’ cargo plane which is carrying six jet fighters to Yugoslavia," said Guluzade–the top foreign policy official in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
Azerbaijan’s customs committee later said the plane had been detained because of document irregularities and the presence on board of 16 "suspicious passengers," an apparent reference to Russian military personnel and engineers.
The independent Azeri news agency Turan’said the passengers originally gave their destination as Yugoslavia and then changed it to North Korea.
Turan’said the plane had landed in Baku on March 18. It was not clear why the news broke only on Tuesday when Primakov was heading for Washington for talks.
NATO is considering air strikes against Yugoslav military targets over Belgrade’s refusal to sign a peace accord for its unruly Kosovo province. Russia is strongly opposed to any strikes–saying they will only further exacerbate tensions.
Azerbaijan is keen to build closer ties with NATO. Recently Guluzade said the United States and close ally Turkey should establish military bases on Azeri territory to counter what he called Russian threats to the republic’s independence.