Editor’s note, Oct. 6: This story has been updated. Find the latest information here.
Two Russians who arrived on St. Lawrence Island by boat were flown off the Bering Sea island by federal government officials this week, setting off a scramble by multiple agencies.
Few details about the situation were publicly known as of Wednesday, with federal and state officials saying very little.
“There were two individuals, they were detained in Gambell,” Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said during a news conference in response to a reporter’s question. “My understanding is they are in Anchorage now.”
“This was a surprise to us,” Dunleavy said. “We do not anticipate a continual stream of individuals.”
A spokesman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety said there was “an incident” on St. Lawrence Island this week involving two Russian nationals. Gambell is less than 40 miles from the Russian mainland.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard sent a C-130 cargo plane to St. Lawrence Island carrying U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel. The Coast Guard transported them out of Gambell, and they are now in the custody of Customs and Border Protection.
“We were helping CBP transport the individuals out of Gambell,” said Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow with the Coast Guard’s District 17 office in Juneau, which was supporting Customs and Border Protection.
The aircraft has since returned to its air station in Kodiak, but Wadlow referred questions about the people onboard to CBP.
The U.S. State Department referred questions about the incident to the Department of Homeland Security. Customs and Border Protection, which falls under Homeland Security, did not respond to email or voice messages requesting comment.
Information circulating online and in text messages Tuesday was filled with rumors, few of them verifiable. An image circulating privately Tuesday included a small metal boat on a St. Lawrence Island beach with a vessel identification code stenciled on the side that appears to be Russian, suggesting the pair boated across the Bering Sea from the Russian mainland. Several people with knowledge of the situation declined to comment on the record, citing concerns for the Russians’ safety and that of relatives who may still reside in Russia, where citizens escaping the government’s compulsory military mobilization face punishment.
Gambell Mayor Alvin Aningayou said Wednesday that he had no information that he could provide.
A community leader in the Bering Strait region contacted U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan early Tuesday morning to notify him of reports about the pair’s arrival on St. Lawrence Island, according to Sullivan communications director Mike Reynard.
“Given current heightened tensions with Russia, Senator Sullivan called the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and spoke to him as well as another senior DHS official,” Reynard said. “Since those calls, Customs and Border Protection is responding and going through the process to determine the admissibility of these individuals to enter the United States.”