South Sudan releases 4 Russian citizens briefly detained in Kapoeta
South Sudanese officials say four Russian citizens, including journalists, who were briefly detained at the now-defunct Kapoeta State airstrip on Tuesday have been released.
The spokesperson of the South Sudan foreign affairs ministry, Hakim Edward told Radio Tamazuj today that the four were being interrogated by security personnel after a remote control of a drone was discovered in their luggage when they landed at the airstrip.
“We can confirm that four Russian bloggers actually got briefly detained by Kapoeta airstrip security personnel because according to Kapoeta airstrip security, the bloggers were actually arrested because they were found in possession of a remote control in their luggage,” said Edward.
He further said that upon investigations, they learned that the actual drone had already been confiscated at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport where the four first landed before proceeding to Kapoeta Town.
Edward pointed out that the Russian nationals have been freed and were expected to travel to Juba today, Thursday.
“We would like to use this opportunity to alert and advise that to avoid any such inconveniencies, any journalist traveling to South Sudan should first seek the necessary guidance in the nearest South Sudanese Embassy especially in relation to traveling with drone devices and their accessories,” Edward advised foreign nationals seeking to visit South Sudan.
Eastern Equatoria State governor Louis Lobong Lojore denied the brief detention of the four Russian citizens, saying they were only briefly stopped for questioning about their mission.
“There were some visitors who came to Kapoeta yesterday who happened to be Russians citizens. They came for a tour to Kapoeta and they went to the villages outside the town of Kapoeta and they did what they were going for. All that happened without the knowledge of the local authority,” Lobong said. “I think when they were now trying to go back some security personnel stopped them to question about their missions and documents that was what happened. It was not a big issue, it did not take long, they were released and they have now gone back to Juba.”
“Am telling you, there was no arrest, they were stopped and they were called to the office to be questioned and to clarify their movement and check their documents, so there was no any arrest,” the governor insisted.
According to Lobong, the Russians said they were students who were interested in understanding the cultures of the Toposa people and other communities within Kapoeta.
“They say, they were students and they were interested to see the culture of Toposa and other tribes within the area of Kapoeta, that's what they said and we have no problem about that,” he said. “If some foreigners want to go outside the town, the security should be aware of their own safety.”
According to an official at the Kapoeta Airstrip who spoke to Radio Tamazuj on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, the four left for Juba this morning.
“Today, these people left for Juba, they boarded a commercial plane belonging to the High Vision Air Aviation and Services Co. Limited. They went to Juba this morning,” he said.
The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Russian activist Pyotr Verzilov, who is a member of the Pussy Riot protest group, and blogger Ilya Varlamov and three other people were briefly detained in South Sudan's Kapoeta Town.
Varlamov wrote on his blog that the group arrived in South Sudan as tourists, planning to continue on another flight to Juba, but were stopped and detained after airport security found the remote control of a drone in their luggage.
Varlamov explained that the soldiers thought they were launching a drone, even though they had informed them that the drone was confiscated in Uganda.
The blogger in numerous social media publications alleged that they had been taken to an obscure location where the soldiers wanted to take their phones, money, and equipment, but they resisted. In a video, he said they were later transferred to a separate cell with chairs, a rusty bed, and a TV.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement quoted by the TASS news agency that the group was subsequently released "as a result of diplomatic efforts. At this point, issues related to their departure from South Sudan are under discussion," Zakharova said.
Until publication, Radio Tamazuj could not verify if the foreigners were already in Juba.