Russia furious over Cold War-style US spy arrests
Russia angrily hit back on Tuesday at US claims that it had smashed a Moscow-organised spy ring, saying the accusations were reminiscent of the Cold War and could damage efforts to improve relations.
The US Justice Department said 10 "deep-cover" suspects, accused of infiltrating US policymaking for the Kremlin, had been detained on suspicion of seeking details of US nuclear weapons and foreign policy.
Five accused appeared in court in New York on Monday and some of the suspects are apparently Russian nationals. According to US documents, the spy ring had been under FBI surveillance for a decade.
A key eleventh suspect, named as Canadian Christopher Metsos, 54, was arrested by Cypriot police at Larnaca airport as he prepared to board an early-morning flight to Budapest, officials said.
"In our opinion, such actions are groundless and pursue unseemly aims," a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said. It is highly deplorable that all of this is happening against the background of the reset in Russia-US ties."
The arrests Sunday in four northeastern US states came only three days after President Barack Obama described his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev as a "solid and reliable partner" at a White House summit.
"We do not understand the reasons that prompted the US Justice Department to come forward with a public announcement in the spirit of 'spy sensations' of the Cold War era," the unidentified spokesman added in a statement.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded an explanation of the charges. "They did not explain what the matter is about. I hope they will," Lavrov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying during a visit to Jerusalem.
"The moment when it was done has been chosen with a special finesse," he said, with apparent sarcasm.
Russia-US ties have over the last months been marked by a public warmth unprecedented over the last years with Medvedev and Obama even sharing an outing to a burger diner during their summit.
The White House has yet to comment on the case which harks back to Cold War hostilities with the use of false identities and tales of buried money and hidden video cameras. US authorities said an 11th suspect remains at large.
"You were sent to USA for long-term service trip," read a message decrypted by the FBI and said to be from the Moscow headquarters of the SVR intelligence service, a successor to the Communist-era KGB.
"Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. -- all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in US and send intel to C (Moscow Centre)."
The 10 are charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government, which carries a maximum of five years' jail. Nine were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, carries a maximum penalty of 20 years prison.
Britain and Ireland are also investigating reports that fake British and Irish passports were used by members of the alleged spy ring, officials in London and Dublin said.
The Justice Department told how one message from Moscow asked for "info on current international affairs".
"Try to single out tidbits unknown publicly but revealed in private by sources close to State Department, government, major think tanks," it said.
The suspects used false identities to manufacture the trappings of ordinary American lives and blend into society.
Two allegedly pretended to be a married couple called Richard and Cynthia Murphy from Philadelphia; another pair purported to be Peruvians living in Yonkers and were known as Juan Lazaro and Vicky Pelaez, while another purported to be Tracy Lee Ann Foley, a native of Canada but a naturalized US citizen.
Judge James Cott ordered five suspects that appeared Monday in New York to remain in custody until a July 27 preliminary hearing. A bail hearing was set for Thursday.
The other suspects were set to appear before courts in Virginia and Massachusetts.
Metsos, the suspected arrested in Cyprus, had been was under surveillance in Queens, New York in May 2004 when he received a bag of money from an official associated with Russia's UN mission, the complaint alleges.
He was released on 20,000 euros (24,400 dollars) bail to await extradition, the Cypriot authorities said.
For more than 10 years the FBI gathered information by covertly placing microphones at the homes of the suspects, and in hotel rooms, and by monitoring their phone calls and emails.
The arrests were made in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and in northern Virginia, just outside the US capital Washington.
© 2010 AFP