Russian, US spies start new lives but mystery swirls

10th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

The 14 spies swapped by Moscow and Washington were Saturday starting new lives in Russia and the West, but mystery shrouded their precise whereabouts after the biggest spy exchange since the Cold War.

Ten Kremlin agents expelled by Washington in Friday's handover at Vienna Airport were reportedly debriefed at Russian intelligence headquarters in Moscow, while four deported Russians were thought to be in Britain or the US.

Igor Sutyagin, an arms expert, has found himself at a hotel somewhere in Britain, without a visa and still wearing his Russian prison clothes, his brother Dmitry said after Igor finally made contact with his family.

With Sutyagin was another of the four Russians who was convicted of spying for the West and deported in the swap, he told AFP, adding that he did not know the name of the second man.

Underlining the high stakes of a scandal which threatened a thaw in US-Russia ties, CIA chief Leon Panetta was responsible for negotiations with Russia leading to the sensational spy swap, a White House official said.

President Barack Obama was first briefed on the situation as far back as a month ago, some two weeks before the scandal erupted into public with the arrest of the 10 Kremlin agents, the official said.

The 10 pleaded guilty Thursday and were ordered to leave the United States immediately, avoiding the need for a politically embarrassing trial that risked damaging improving relations.

The plane that on Friday took the four Russian convicts out of Russia reportedly made a brief stop at the Brize Norton air base in central England before landing in the United States.

According to British media reports, Sutyagin and Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence GRU convicted of spying for Britain, were dropped off in Britain.

"He (Igor Sutyagin) said he was in a small town near London," bother Dmitry told AFP, saying he could not be more specific about his location.

Dmitry Sutyagin, speaking later in the day on Russia's popular Echo of Moscow radio, said his brother could not leave the hotel as he did not have a British visa and was still wearing his Russian prison outfit.

He also indicated Sutyagin might be without any money. "He got hold of a telephone card by some miracle and called us from a payphone," he said, adding that he had used up that card and could not buy a new one.

Convicted of handing over classified information to a British company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover and sentenced to 15 years in jail, Sutyagin for 11 years denied he was a spy, saying the information came from open sources.

A plane carrying some of the four convicts freed by Russia landed at an international airport outside Washington Friday, an AFP correspondent saw, but it was unclear how many of them were on board.

Russian television, citing what it said were Western reports, said one of the men, convicted spy Alexander Zaporozhsky, would now lead a comfortable life at his nearly one-million-dollar-mansion in Maryland.

As for the fate of the 10 Kremlin agents, Russia virtually imposed a news blackout on all questions linked to them.

On Friday, the Kremlin swiftly loaded them into two minivans and whisked from Moscow's Domodedovo airport in an unknown direction.

On Saturday, Russian authorities continued to stonewall all questions about the agents' whereabouts.

"We still do not comment on these events," a spokesman for Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, told AFP.

He refused to react to a report in Russia's online newspaper that a motorcade of three cars had taken the agents to the Moscow-based SVR headquarters as soon as they arrived.

The country's top sensationalist website said that at least one of the 10 agents -- 28-year old red-head Anna Chapman who fascinated tabloids around the world -- had contacted her family upon arrival.

"Anya called her sister from the Domodedovo airport and said a few words: 'Everything is fine, we've landed,'" the report quoted an unidentified family friend as saying.

© 2010 AFP

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