A man the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claims was behind an alleged attempt to smuggle nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine from Argentina to Moscow has been detained in Germany, his lawyer and police said.
Andrei Kovalchuk's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said on March 2 that his client was detained on the outskirts of Berlin on March 1, and German police confirmed that he was detained.
"Berlin forces have arrested Mr. Kovalchuk. He is now [in] police custody," the news agency AFP quoted a police spokesman as saying.
Russia has requested Kovalchuk's extradition and the process could take several weeks, the Interfax news agency quoted the spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Berlin, Denis Mikerin, as saying.
He said a court was deciding on the form of custody for Kovalchuk as the extradition request is processed.
Russian authorities say Kovalchuk is the main suspect in a bizarre case involving 16 pieces of luggage that officials in Argentina and Russia say were packed with more than $60 million worth of cocaine and left in a storage area at the Russian Embassy school in Buenos Aires.
The Argentinian security minister, Patricia Bullrich, said last week that 389 kilograms of cocaine were found inside the bags when they were seized in December 2016, following a tip from the Russian ambassador and three FSB officers. She called it evidence of "one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations that Argentina has faced."
The cocaine was replaced with flour and the luggage was flown in 2017 to Russia, where two men were arrested when they came to pick it up, Bullrich said. She said a suspect she referred to by the initial K had allegedly been in charge of buying the cocaine and getting it into the embassy.
The FSB has said that three suspects have been detained in Russia and two in Argentina as a result of what both countries said was a joint operation, while the alleged mastermind -- later identified as Kovalchuk, a former technical worker at the Russian Embassy in Argentina who lives in Germany -- was wanted under an international arrest warrant.
However, on March 2, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Kovalchuk had never worked either for the ministry or for the Russian Embassy in Argentina.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, distanced the Kremlin from the case, telling reporters that Putin's office had "no information" about Kovalchuk's detention or other aspects of the matter.
Kovalchuk's lawyer, Zherebenkov, said on February 27 that his client had left his suitcases at the embassy in 2016 and they contained coffee, some alcohol, and other items -- but no cocaine.
On February 28, Russian state and independent media outlets quoted Zherebenkov as claiming that the operation was a provocation conducted by the U.S. intelligence services and Argentinian police in an attempt to discredit the Russian Embassy.
Zherebenkov did not provide evidence of the claim. He was quoted as saying that Kovalchuk was ready to come to Russia and cooperate with investigators in order "to prove his innocence and establish the truth."
Also on February 28, Berlin-based Russian-language television station RTVD showed footage in which Konstantin Loskutnikov, a Russian businessman living in Germany, said that Kovalchuk was introduced to him several years ago as a colonel in the Russian security services.
With reporting by TASS, AFP, RBK, Interfax, and Meduza