Obama Part of Group Locked Up at Russian Airport
WASHINGTON, DC -- Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) were not allowed to leave a Russian airport Sunday and were locked in a room briefly.
The incident prevented their departure for about three hours, but Obama told the Sun-Times "it ended up not being a very big deal."
The senators had their passports seized by local officials at an airport in Perm. Obama said the officials demanded, unsuccessfully, to inspect the DC-9 military aircraft being used by the congressional delegation for the trip.
'It wasn't the gulag'
"We were in a lounge with a locked door at one point," Obama said. "It wasn't the gulag.''
Obama, who will meet with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko today in Kiev, is on his first foreign visit as senator. He said he was never concerned that the group would be taken into custody, because after all, "we are a couple of U.S. senators."
Although he was on a first-time diplomatic mission, Obama has traveled extensively, spending part of his youth in Indonesia and visiting Kenya, where his father was born. He noted that as a back- packing college student he had "a lot less leverage than this time."
Obama, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Lugar, its chairman, left Wednesday for a trip to inspect sites where nuclear and biological weapons are slated to be destroyed in Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. On Sunday, the U.S. group was scheduled to fly from Perm to Kiev, Ukraine. But border guards wanted proof that the group's aircraft -- which Obama said looked like a "mini-Air Force One" -- was really an official U.S. government plane, which would be exempt from an inspection.
Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman traveling with him, said in an e-mail that "the border guards took our passports and demanded to inspect our aircraft, which we refused. We were moved to a room to wait."
"At one point they were demanding to inspect virtually everything, including the gifts their representatives at the missile facility had given us." The border guard said "they were acting on the authority of the FSB," the Russian intelligence agency.
While the delegation waited, there were calls between Washington, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow and the Russian Foreign Ministry, Obama and Gibbs said.
Obama said local officials at first were not convinced the United States had obtained proper permission for an international flight to depart from Perm.
'Blagojevich of Perm' helps out
"The Russian Federation only allows [international] departures from three airports in the country, not from Perm," Obama said.
Documentation that the senators had permission "had not trickled down" to Perm, Obama said. He said the matter was resolved with the intervention of the region's governor, the "Rod Blagojevich of Perm."
Source: Chicago Sun-Times