Lithuania, Norway swap spies with Russia at border

Norwegian national Frode Berg was sentenced to 14 years in a Russian prison for espionage. (AP Photo)
Updated 15 November 2019

Lithuania, Norway swap spies with Russia at border

  • Lithuanian citizens Yevgeny Mataitis and Arstidas Tamosaitis and Norwegian citizen Frode Berg returned to Lithuania
  • Lithuania handed over the two pardoned Russians, Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko in the exchange at a Lithuanian border crossing

VILNIUS: Russia on Friday returned two Lithuanians and a Norwegian convicted of espionage to Vilnius in a espionage swap that also saw NATO and EU member Lithuania free two Russians jailed for spying in an exchange reminiscent of the Cold War.
Tensions between Lithuania and Soviet-era master Russia grew after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, triggering a string of espionage allegations on both sides.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda first pardoned the two Russians jailed by Vilnius for spying, prompting Moscow to announce it would respond in kind.
“Today, at midday, the exchange operation was completed successfully,” Lithuanian intelligence chief Darius Jauniskis told reporters in Vilnius on Friday.
“Lithuanian citizens Yevgeny Mataitis and Arstidas Tamosaitis and Norwegian citizen Frode Berg successfully returned to Lithuania,” he said, adding that Berg was then transferred to the Norwegian embassy in the Lithuanian capital.
Jauniskis said Lithuania handed over the two pardoned Russians, Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko in the exchange at a Lithuanian border crossing with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency director Sergei Naryshkin had told news agencies that Moscow would take “reciprocal measures” following Lithuania’s pardon.
Both Russians were sentenced by Lithuanian courts in 2017.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg hailed Berg’s release and thanked Lithuania for its “cooperation and efforts” in securing his freedom.
Ilya Novikov, Berg’s lawyer in Russia, tweeted on Friday that he was “on his way home, it’s over” but it remained unclear when he would return to Norway.
Nauseda’s decree said the Russians were pardoned in line with a new law on spy swaps.
Lithuanian officials said Filipchenko worked for the FSB Russian federal security service and was trying to recruit senior officials in the Baltic state.
He was sentenced to 10 years behind bars and did not appeal.
Moisejenko was jailed for 10 years and six months after a court ruled he recruited a Lithuanian army captain who served at the country’s Siauliai military air base. He had pleaded innocent.
The two Lithuanians were sentenced in Russia for allegedly sharing Russian military intelligence with Lithuania.
Moscow occupied and annexed Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia during World War II.
The trio only broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.
Tension including allegations of espionage between the Baltic states and Russia have simmered since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
Estonia and Russia swapped convicted spies last year, while in 2015, Russia freed Estonian officer Eston Kohver in a Cold War-style bridge handover.


Taliban attacks ‘damaging’ peace process, says Afghan govt

Updated 35 min 59 sec ago

Taliban attacks ‘damaging’ peace process, says Afghan govt

  • Spokesman for insurgent group accuses Kabul of making ‘excuses’ to delay talks

KABUL: Afghanistan’s government on Sunday accused the Taliban of increasing its attacks, casting doubt on future negotiations with the insurgent group.

A promise of future peace talks was part of a historic peace deal signed in February between the Taliban and the US in Doha, Qatar. But negotiations have already been delayed twice because of disagreements between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban. The talks were expected to pave the way for a total withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan by next year.

In a series of tweets on Sunday, Sediq Sediqqi, Ghani’s chief spokesman, said the “intensification of violence by the Taliban lately,” which also claimed civilian lives, “damages hopes for the start of the talks and stable peace in the country.”

It follows a statement by Hamdullah Mohib, Ghani’s national security adviser, who said in a statement last night that the escalation of Taliban attacks was the “main cause for the postponement of the talks.”

He said: “The Taliban have intensified their violence in many parts of Afghanistan, disrupting the process of direct talks and making it harder.”

Mohib’s spokesman, Javid Faisal, said on Saturday that in the past week alone, the Taliban had staged attacks in 16 of the country’s 34 provinces, resulting in the deaths of at least 23 civilians.

He did not give an estimate of casualties sustained by government forces. However, official data released last month showed that hundreds of army and police personnel died during Taliban attacks in June.

The Taliban has rejected the claims of the government. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid blamed Kabul for several strikes which “led to the fatalities among non-combatants.”

These include a rocket attack at a cattle market in southern Helmand in June, where human rights groups say dozens of civilians, including children, were killed.

“A political solution is the only alternative that we have for ending the war and changing the situation in Afghanistan. No hindrance should be created against this,” Mujahid told Arab News on Sunday.

He accused Kabul of blocking the start of peace talks by not releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a condition demanded by the insurgent group ahead of negotiations.

While Kabul has freed over 4,000 Taliban prisoners, it said last week that it would not release 600 of them, “as they had committed various types of crimes.”

Mujahid described the government move as “one excuse after the other.”

He said: “The release of the rest of the prisoners is a must. If the process of release of prisoners is not completed, the talks cannot begin, and there is a possibility that fighting will intensify and then we will have to settle the conflict through military means.”

Experts warn that Ghani’s government is under increasing pressure.

Former diplomat and analyst Ahmad Saeedi said Ghani is under pressure from Washington, which “wants to show that it is keen to conduct talks, but from the other side wants this process to continue for five years,” until Ghani’s term ends.

“Ghani wants the Taliban to join his government, while the Taliban consider his government fragile, arguing that if he does not engage in talks, then they will take power by force after the US pulls out troops,” Saeedi said.

Another analyst, Taj Mohammad, said the lack of progress in setting a fixed time for the talks was a blow for the peace process and “showed that the actual negotiations would be highly complicated and difficult.”

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