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U.S. denies role in Qatar arrests

From CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty

Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was wanted by Russia on terrorism charges.

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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Clarifying comments by a U.S. diplomat, a U.S. official in Moscow said Monday the United States played no role in the arrest or investigation of Russian intelligence agents held in Qatar on charges of killing a Chechen separatist leader.

Earlier, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer, in Moscow for talks with Russian officials, told a Russian newspaper the U.S. had provided Qatar "very insignificant technical assistance" after Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, former president of Chechnya, was killed February 13 when a bomb attached to the bottom of his car exploded.

Yandarbiyev had been living in Qatar since 2000.

The statement by Pifer drew criticism from Russian lawmakers who questioned why the United States would help Qatar in the arrest of the Russian agents.

Moscow claims the agents, two of whom are still held, had no role in the murder and has demanded Qatar release them.

Moscow also retaliated by detaining two Qatari wrestlers who were transiting through Moscow.

Later Monday, after Pifer took part in non-proliferation and disarmament talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry, a U.S. official in Moscow told CNN "in the initial aftermath of the explosion, Qatar requested ,and the United States sent, a small team of experts in the technical aspects of explosives."

The official said the United States has provided such assistance to other countries as well but added, "the experts played no role in the arrest or investigation of the suspects."

In his interview with Moscow's Vremya Novostei newspaper, Pifer denied claims that U.S. officials had met with Yandarbiyev last year. Russian President Vladimir Putin had made such a statement last fall.

Last week, in a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, CNN asked whether Russia believes it has the right to pursue or assassinate terrorists living outside of Russia.

Lavrov refused to directly answer, saying the question was "not for Russia" but should be considered "in light of actions by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories."

Yandarbiyev was on a U.N. list of suspects with alleged links to al Qaeda as well as on a U.S. list of international terrorists.

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