A U.S. delegation headed by Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was detained Sunday for three hours at an airport in Russia before being allowed to leave the country for Ukraine.
Russian border guards at the airport in the Siberian city of Perm demanded they be allowed to search the U.S. government aircraft carrying the delegation, which also included Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who was making his first foreign trip since becoming a senator. Obama is also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
"It's always unbelievable," Lugar told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune traveling with the delegation. "It can be a dysfunctional government."
American officials, citing a U.S.-Russian agreement that does not allow such inspections, refused to let the search take place, leading to a three-hour standoff at the airport, according to Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Lugar who is on the trip.
The congressional delegation was held in a malodorous room adjacent to the tarmac and allowed onto an adjoining porch area only after they surrendered their passports, said Fisher, who spoke by phone from Kiev after the delegation landed there.
"This is not the first time this has happened," Fisher said, noting that a delegation including Lugar was detained in Perm for a short time two years ago. "It may be some kind of internal bureaucratic problem."
U.S. officials in Moscow and Washington intervened with the Russian authorities to secure the group's departure.
The delegation was in Russia as part of a week-long tour of major weapons facilities in former Soviet republics, where U.S. funds are being used to secure or destroy nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Russia recently agreed to open sensitive sites to U.S. inspection, a development that Lugar heralded at a news conference Friday in Moscow.
"Russians in the past had placed severe limitations on inspections at these storage sites, so this is a significant breakthrough," said Lugar, who is the co-author of the 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
In Perm, the delegation toured a facility designed to destroy nuclear warheads.
After visiting Ukraine, the delegation will travel to Azerbaijan.
Separately, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was briefly delayed at an airport in another Siberian city, Irkutsk, because of a problem with flight clearance paperwork. Hagel was in the region to tour a nearby natural gas deposit site as part of a trip to study energy issues. The issue was resolved after the embassy contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry, and Hagel flew on to Bulgaria, a diplomat here said.