A diplomatic ruckus is brewing between Russia and Kyrgyzstan following reports that Russian officials rescued two ethnic Russian children in the Central Asian country from organ traffickers.
Following the claims, which first surfaced on Russian public television in January, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry has requested an official explanation from its Russian counterpart.
The tiff started when Russia's Channel One television quoted Anastasia Antonova, deputy consul at the Russian Embassy in Bishkek, as saying Russian diplomats "rescued" the two children -- 6-year-old Timofei Romanenko and his sister, 14-year-old Anna Chernitsyna -- after they were sold to organ traffickers following the suspicious death of their mother in September.
Antonova told Russian media that the mother -- Natalya Romanenko, a Russian citizen -- may have been murdered by her partner, Aleksei Popov, the natural father of Timofei and Anna's stepfather, who sold the two children to a gang of traffickers. Popov has denied the accusations.
Antonova claimed that Russian diplomats were alerted to the case by the traffickers' neighbors, with whom the two children allegedly temporarily sought refuge before escaping.
Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Andrei Krutko said that only prompt action by Russian authorities had prevented the children from falling back into the hands of the traffickers.
Krutko told the English-language website Siberiantimes.com that Russian diplomats sprang into action and, with help from local police, saved Anna and Timofei after learning that they were roaming the suburbs of Bishkek. "They were begging and in a very bad state," Krutko was quoted as saying.
The two were eventually issued new Russian documents and sent to Novosibirsk, their mother's place of origin, where they are now recovering in a rehabilitation center, according to media reports.
While the Russian narrative has a happy ending, it has been contradicted by Kyrgyz officials, who have failed to confirm Antonova's and Krutko's accounts of events.
Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurlan Suierkulov told RFE/RL on February 1 that the Russian diplomats' statements were not supported by local authorities' investigations.
The head of Kyrgyzstan’s General Directorate for Public Safety, Erkin Baev, has told RFE/RL that all reports regarding the "selling" of the children are groundless.
According to Kyrgyz authorities, after the children's mother committed suicide in September, their father, Popov, couldn't provide for Timofei and Anna and left them in the care of Yelena Bazhinskaya, a friend of their late mother.
A relative from abroad, contacted by Bazhinskaya, agreed to take them into her custody and traveled to Bishkek to file the papers with the Russian Embassy, since the children have Russian citizenship owing to their late mother.
Baev says the children were transferred from Bazhinskaya’s house to a local orphanage and then, after all papers were filed with the embassy, they were transferred to Russia.
"On December 29, the Russian Embassy official Anastasia Antonova took the kids away to Russia," Baev said. "All necessary documents have been prepared by local authorities. The information that the children were scheduled to be sold is wrong.”
Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurlan Suierkulov told RFE/RL that an official note has been sent to Russia's Foreign Ministry asking for details and an explanation.
Contacted by RFE/RL, the Russian Embassy in Bishkek declined to comment.
The diplomatic back and forth comes shortly after a spat between Russia and Germany resulting from Russian television reports on the alleged abduction and rape of a 13-year old ethnic Russian by foreign migrants in Berlin. The girl, identified only as Lisa in German media reports, admitted upon questioning that she had concocted the story, according to a spokesman for the prosecutor's office in Berlin.
The case received broad coverage in Russia, further souring already cold relations with Germany, leading to accusations that Moscow was exploiting the case for propagandistic purposes.