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Russia Denies Security Involvement in Chechen Murder in Qatar - 2004-06-30

Russia's foreign minister has rejected the finding by a court in the Gulf State of Qatar that two Russian security agents were involved in the assassination of a former Chechen rebel leader in Qatar earlier this year. The comment came shortly after the court in Qatar sentenced the two men to life in prison for the February killing, and said the murder had been ordered by Russian officials.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters the two men were not involved in the bombing death of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a former leader of the breakaway region of Chechnya.

His comment was made during a visit to Indonesia, after the two men were sentenced by a Qatari judge who told the court that the murder had been "ordered and approved" by the Russian leadership. Russia has admitted that the men were agents, but insists they were only gathering intelligence about international terrorism.

Mr. Yandarbiyev was killed along with two others when a bomb blast destroyed his vehicle as he was driving in the Qatari capital, Doha. His teenage son was injured by the blast.

Mr. Yandarbiyev sought refuge in the Gulf state in 1999, when Russian troops invaded the breakaway region of Chechnya, where he had briefly served as president several years earlier.

Russia had long accused Mr. Yandarbiyev of involvement in terrorism, but Qatari authorities granted him asylum along with other Chechens.

The bombing shocked the small Gulf state and the incident strained relations with Russia, especially after Qatari police arrested the two men, along with another Russian who was released because he had diplomatic status.

Defense lawyer Dmitry Afanasiyev says he will contest the verdict.

He adds that the convicted men will appeal the verdict and if that fails they will ask to be allowed to serve their sentences in Russia.

Russian and Qatari diplomats sought to downplay the implications of the case by agreeing to let the matter run its course in the courts.

Political analyst Masha Lipman, at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the ruling was expected even though it was a complicated case with political overtones.

"It looks like there was a lot of evidence indicated," she said. "I don't think the government of Qatar was interested in accusing people who did not commit the crime."

Some observers say the two governments may now negotiate a face-saving end to the case, either having the men pardoned or sent back to Russia.