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2 Russians seek asylum in U.S. after reaching remote Alaska island

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Two Russians who said they fled the country to avoid military service have requested asylum in the U.S. after landing in a small boat on a remote Alaska island in the Bering Sea, Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office said Thursday.

Karina Borger, a Murkowski spokesperson, by email said the office has been in communication with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection and that “the Russian nationals reported that they fled one of the coastal communities on the east coast of Russia to avoid compulsory military service.”

Thousands of Russian men have fled since President Vladimir Putin announced a mobilization to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine. While Putin said the move was aimed at calling up about 300,000 men with past military service, many Russians fear it will be broader.

Spokespersons with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection referred a reporter’s questions to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security public affairs office, which provided little information Thursday. The office, in a statement, said the people “were transported to Anchorage for inspection, which includes a screening and vetting process, and then subsequently processed in accordance with applicable U.S. immigration laws under the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

The agency said the two Russians arrived Tuesday on a small boat. It did not provide details on where they came from, their journey or the asylum request. It was not immediately clear what kind of boat they were on.

Alaska’s senators, Republicans Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, on Thursday said the two Russians landed at a beach near the town of Gambell, an isolated Alaska Native community of about 600 people on St. Lawrence Island. Sullivan said he was alerted to the matter by a “senior community leader from the Bering Strait region” on Tuesday morning.

Gambell is about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the western Alaska hub community of Nome and about 36 miles (58 kilometers) from the Chukotka Peninsula, Siberia, according to a community profile on a state website. The remote, 100-mile (161-kilometer) long island, which includes Savoonga, a community of about 800 people, receives flight services from a regional air carrier. Residents rely heavily on a subsistence way of life, harvesting from the sea fish, whales and other marine life.

A person who responded to an email address listed for Gambell directed questions to federal authorities.

Sullivan, in a statement, said he has encouraged federal authorities to have a plan in place in case “more Russians flee to Bering Strait communities in Alaska.”

“This incident makes two things clear: First, the Russian people don’t want to fight Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Sullivan said. “Second, given Alaska’s proximity to Russia, our state has a vital role to play in securing America’s national security.”

Murkowski said the situation underscored “the need for a stronger security posture in America’s Arctic.”

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday, as initial details of the situation were emerging, said he did not expect a continual stream or “flotilla” of people traversing the same route. He also warned that travel in the region could be dangerous as a fall storm packing strong winds was expected.

It is unusual for someone to take this route to try to get into the U.S.

U.S. authorities in August stopped Russians without legal status 42 times who tried to enter the U.S. from Canada. That was up from 15 times in July and nine times in August 2021.

Russians more commonly try to enter the U.S. through Mexico, which does not require visas. Russians typically fly from Moscow to Cancun or Mexico City, entering Mexico as tourists before getting a connecting a flight to the U.S. border. Earlier this year, U.S. authorities contended with a spate of Russians who hoped to claim asylum if they reached an inspection booth at an official crossing.

Some trace the spike to before Russia invaded Ukraine, attributing it to the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year.

Associated Press reporters Manuel Valdes in Seattle and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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