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US ambassador visits ex-marine held in Russia on spy charges

Paul Whelan, 48, was in Moscow to attend a wedding when he suddenly disappeared, says his family. Photograph: Whelan family/EPA

The US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, has visited a former marine in a Moscow prison where he is being held on espionage charges, the state department has confirmed.

Paul Whelan, who is head of global security for a Michigan-based car parts supplier, was detained in Russia on Friday. In announcing the arrest three days later, the Russian Federal Security Service said he was caught “during an espionage operation”, but gave no details.

Whelan, 48, was in Moscow to attend a wedding when he suddenly disappeared, his brother David Whelan said on Tuesday.

A state department spokesperson said that Ambassador Huntsman had visited Whelan on Wednesday in the Lefortovo detention facility, a former KGB prison in Moscow.

“Ambassador Huntsman expressed his support for Mr Whelan and offered the embassy’s assistance,” the spokesperson said, adding that Huntsman had subsequently phoned Whelan’s family.

The state department also said it had “expressed our concern about the delay in consular access through diplomatic channels”.

The US has “made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges and come to understand what it is he’s been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return”, said the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, during a visit to Brazil.

David Whelan told the Guardian: “Secretary Pompeo’s statement was a good start to the day.”

In an earlier statement on his brother’s disappearance, he said: “We noticed that he was not in communication on the 28th, which was very much out of character for him even when he was travelling.”

The family found out about the arrest on Monday.

“We are deeply concerned for his safety and wellbeing. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” David Whelan said.

In another interview, he added his brother had been to Russia several times, so when a fellow former marine was planning a wedding in Moscow with a Russian woman he was asked to go along to help out.

The morning of his arrest, he had taken a group of wedding guests on a tour of the Kremlin museums. The last time anyone heard from him was at about 5pm and then he failed to show up that evening for the wedding, his brother said.

“It was extraordinarily out of character,” he said.

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