Russia could 'swap US spy for Bout': report

9th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

A former Russian defence ministry official sentenced to 18 years for spying for the United States may be swapped for alleged "Merchant of Death" arms dealer Viktor Bout, Interfax reported Wednesday.

A former defence ministry officer and employee of Russia's Rosatom nuclear agency, Andrei Khlychev was last week given an 18-year sentence by a Moscow court for spying for the United States, the news agency said, quoting a source in law enforcement.

"Currently, the possibility is being considered to swap Andrei Khlychev -- who was sentenced by the Moscow city court to a lengthy prison term -- for one of the Russians imprisoned abroad, possibly Viktor Bout," the source told Interfax.

There was no official confirmation of the report.

Bout's lawyer said he was surprised by the information, noting that his client was currently facing a New York court hearing that was only due to begin in October.

"This is impossible since Viktor is currently on trial," attorney Viktor Burobin told Moscow Echo radio. "People who are on trial cannot be exchanged for anyone."

Bout's brother Sergei also said he was unaware of any such plans. "I know nothing about it, although it would be good news," he told Interfax.

Believed by US law enforcement to be one of the world's biggest arms traffickers, Bout was arrested in a US sting in March 2008 and extradited from Thailand in November after a long legal battle.

In January, Bout told a Russian reporter that he rejected a US plea bargain offer that would have exposed his alleged international contact list.

His name has been mentioned in other potential exchanges, all of them eventually proving false.

The report came at the start of a visit to Moscow by US Vice President Joe Biden, who held talks with President Dmitry Medvedev and was due Thursday to meet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former spy.

The Russian defence official's trial was held in secret, with the first information about released only after Khlychev's conviction.

A law enforcement source told Interfax that Khlychev was accused of passing on classified data related to the work of the Russian nuclear industry.

Last July, Russia and the United States staged their biggest spy swap since the Cold War, exchanging 10 agents deported by the United States for four freed by Moscow.

© 2011 AFP

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