Signs grow of Russia, US 'spy exchange'

8th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Signs grew Thursday that Russia and the United States were staging a dramatic Cold War-style spy swap to end an espionage scandal that threatened to harm improving relations.

A lawyer for Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms expert jailed in 2004 on charges of spying for the CIA, said her client may already have been released and taken to Vienna as part of the swap for 10 alleged members of a Russian spy ring held in the United States.

All 10 suspects -- including Anna Chapman, 28, whose glamorous looks made her an international figure -- were to appear in court on Thursday after judges ruled they should all be transferred to New York.

Media reports said they could then rapidly leave the United States, with Russia in turn releasing several convicts jailed for spying for the West, including Sutyagin.

Online newspaper said Chapman would return to Moscow overnight "incognito" as part of the prisoner exchange and no official announcement would be made.

Such a swap would allow Russia and the United States avoid potentially embarrassing and diplomatically damaging court battles over the scandal at a time when they are pursuing a much-vaunted reset of relations.

In a possibly significant encounter, a US State Department spokesman confirmed that William Burns, a former US ambassador to Moscow, met Wednesday with Russia's US Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, US officials said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined comment the reports of a spy swap, telling reporters that the Justice Department was handling the issue.

Exchanges of captured agents between Western and Eastern powers were a regular tactic in the Cold War, sometimes on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany.

Lawyers for the accused who were arrested June 27 in an FBI swoop said Washington and Moscow were discussing a prisoner swap that could come as early as Thursday, The New York Times reported.

With US officials formally charging the suspects Wednesday with acting as illegal foreign agents, judges ordered two of the suspects detained in Boston and three in the Washington area to be transferred to New York, where they will join five already in the city.

The suspects were to appear before a judge in federal court, the US prosecutor's office for Manhattan announced.

They are all accused of "conspiring to act as secret agents in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation," the formal indictment said, adding that nine are also charged with "conspiracy to commit money laundering."

The charges carry maximum sentences of 20 years for money laundering and five for the secret agent allegations.

An 11th suspect, accused paymaster Christopher Metsos, remains at large.

Sutyagin, a Russian arms expert, was convicted in 2004 of handing classified information to the United States, via a British security company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

The father of Sutyagin has been told "that he has been seen coming out of a plane in Vienna" and received by an officer, lawyer Anna Stavitskaya told AFP, adding the information remained a rumour.

Ernst Cherny, the head of the committee for protection of researchers told Interfax: "As far as I know Sutyagin has arrived in Vienna".

But Sutyagin's bother Dmitry said that "no-one is confirming anything and he (Igor Sutyagin) has not been in touch with us."

The Kommersant newspaper also published three more names of Russians convicted for espionage whom it said would be swapped for the suspected Russian agents.

Kommersant said the list of those to be exchanged included Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence who it said was sentenced in 2006 to 13 years jail on charges of spying for Britain.

The list also included a former employee of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Alexander Zaporozhsky who was jailed for 18 years for espionage in 2003 and Alexander Sypachev, sentenced in 2002 to eight years in jail for spying for the CIA, it said.

© 2010 AFP

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