Germany's Merkel: Don't link Navalny case to pipeline plan

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FILE - In this file photo taken on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia. The German hospital treating Russian dissident Alexei Navalny says tests indicate that he was poisoned. The Charit hospital said in a statement Monday, Aug. 24, 2020 that the team of doctors who have been examining Navalny since he was admitted Saturday have found the presence of cholinesterase inhibitors in his system. Cholinesterase inhibitors are a broad range of substances that are found in several drugs, but also pesticides and nerve agents. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

BERLIN – Germany has a duty to do what it can to help get to the bottom of the apparent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday, but she argued that the issue shouldn't be linked to the fate of a German-Russian gas pipeline project whose completion the U.S. wants to prevent.

Navalny, an opposition politician and corruption investigator who is a longtime foe of President Vladimir Putin, has been at Berlin's Charite hospital for nearly a week after falling ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on Aug. 20. The hospital said earlier this week that tests on Navalny indicate he was poisoned.

Navalny’s allies insist he was deliberately poisoned and say the Kremlin was behind it, accusations that Russian officials have rejected as “empty noise.” On Thursday, the Russian prosecutor general's office said a preliminary inquiry hasn't found any indication of “deliberate criminal acts” committed against him.

Germany has pushed for Russia to investigate the case in “full transparency.”

“We have an obligation to do everything so that this can be cleared up,” Merkel told reporters at her annual summer news conference. “It was right and good that Germany said we were prepared ... to take in Mr. Navalny. And now we will try to get this cleared up with the possibilities we have, which are indeed limited.”

When there is more clarity about what happened, Germany will try to ensure a “European reaction” to the case, Merkel said. She cited the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain two years ago, which prompted many European countries to expel Russian diplomats.

But Merkel rejected the idea that the Navalny case should be linked to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being built under the Baltic Sea.

“Our opinion is that Nord Stream 2 should be completed," she said, adding: “I don't think it is appropriate to link this business-operated project with the Navalny question."

The U.S. has long opposed the project, which has been increasingly a source of friction between Berlin and Washington as it nears completion. In early August, three Republican senators threatened sanctions against a the operator of a Baltic Sea port located in Merkel's parliamentary constituency over its part in Nord Stream 2. The Mukran port is a key staging post for ships involved in its construction.

“We are also against the extraterritorial sanctions that the United States of America has imposed,” Merkel said.

The U.S. argues the project will endanger European security by making Germany overly dependent on Russian gas. It’s also opposed by Ukraine and Poland, which will be bypassed by the pipeline under the Baltic, as well as some other European nations.

In addition to the security concerns, the U.S. also wants to sell more of its own liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to Europe.