Alleged Russian spies await US bail fate

1st July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Nine suspected Russian sleeper agents sought bail Thursday in US courtrooms, but after the sensational escape of their alleged Kremlin paymaster in Cyprus, they looked set to remain behind bars.

Red-faced Cypriot authorities were hopeful of catching Christopher Metsos, a key suspect in the US-Russia spy saga who was bizarrely allowed to walk free after surrendering his passport and posting a 26,500-euro (32,330-dollar) bail.

"We know his whereabouts roughly from the information we have collected," said Justice Minister Loucas Louca. "We have some information, and I hope that we will arrest him soon."

Circulating a picture of Metsos -- due to be extradited to the United States later this month -- police said all exit points were being monitored as was the border dividing the Turkish-held north from the Greek Cypriot south.

It was feared the suspected Kremlin money-man might try to cross into the breakaway north of the Mediterranean island -- a well-known haven for fugitives which has no international extradition treaties.

His vanishing act Wednesday made it unlikely the suspects in the United States would be granted bail, even though eight of them lived as suburban married couples and reportedly have seven American-born children between them.

First to learn their fate will be Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, supposed Canadians arrested by the FBI on Sunday. They were appearing at a court in Boston where they lived together since 1999.

Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, a second couple based in the Washington area, were due in a Virginia courtroom along with Mikhail Semenko, also accused of being part of the elaborate Russian spy ring.

The final four, Christopher and Richard Murphy from Montclair, New Jersey and Peruvian journalist Vicky Pelaez and her partner Juan Lazaro, were due to appear at 2000 GMT in New York.

The 10th suspect arrested in Sunday's swoop, flame-haired Russian bombshell Anna Chapman, had her bail request turned down in the same New York courtroom on Monday.

The case of the alleged "deep cover" agents -- accused of trying to infiltrate US policymaking circles -- harks back to Cold War hostilities, with the use of false identities and tales of buried money and hidden video cameras.

Much attention has been paid to Chapman, 28, described as a flashy femme fatale in the tabloids and accused of using elaborate communication rituals to pass information to her Russian handler.

Russian media have reported that Chapman is a young businesswoman who moved in the highest sections of society, the daughter of a former Russian ambassador to the Kremlin and the ex-wife of a British executive of a French supermarket firm.

But the Russian foreign ministry Thursday declined to comment on how many of the 11 implicated in the scandal were Russian citizens.

The White House said President Barack Obama knew the FBI was closing in on the spies when he hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a summit three days before the arrests, although it appears he failed to mention it in their meetings.

Medvedev has yet to comment on the scandal although strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, has criticized US law enforcement authorities, while saying he hoped the scandal would not harm ties.

After initially reacting with fury, the Russian government has since been at pains to prevent the scandal spiraling into a major diplomatic crisis.

The Russian press has been highly skeptical, questioning if the suspects were really spies and blaming the scandal on elements in the United States opposed to Obama's policy of reconciliation with Russia.

"It's as if James Bond finally opens his super briefcase -- and all you find inside are some socks and some chicken wrapped in foil," wrote the pro-Kremlin mass circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

© 2010 AFP

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