US, Russia stage Cold War airport spy swap
Russia and the United States Friday played out their biggest spy swap since the Cold War at Vienna airport, exchanging 10 agents deported by US authorities for four freed by Russia in a perfectly choreographed operation.
Special Russian and US flights brought the spies to the Austrian capital, parked next to each other on the runway, then took off within 15 minutes of each other after making the exchange that kept a thaw in US-Russian ties on track.
A government jet carrying the 10 Russian spies, including the glamorous Anna Chapman, took them back to Moscow's Domodedovo airport, officials said. A Russian intelligence services source said they returned "to the motherland".
Pictures broadcast on Russian state television showed the agents being whisked away from the Domodedovo airport tarmac to an unknown location in two minivans that had parked next to the aircraft.
The American plane, meanwhile, made a brief stop at the Brize Norton air base in central England before taking off again, British media reported.
Vienna, near the old Iron Curtain frontier, has not seen such drama since the Cold War, when it was a traditional venue for espionage rivalry between the two superpowers.
The 10 members of a Russian spy ring caught in the United States were taken from New York on the US plane which came to a halt next to a Russian Emergency Situations Ministry jet carrying the four Russians jailed for giving secrets to the West.
Covered steps placed over the main doors to the two airliners hid the exchange from media gathered at Vienna airport hoping for a sight of Chapman and a top Russian armaments expert who were among the group.
Moscow confirmed that a deal had been agreed with Washington aiming to end the spy scandal.
The Russian foreign ministry said the bargain involved the "return to Russia of 10 Russian citizens accused in the United States, along with the simultaneous transfer to the United States of four individuals previously condemned in Russia."
The United States sent back the 10 Kremlin agents late Thursday after they pleaded guilty in a New York court to acting as illegal agents for Moscow. They were immediately expelled.
The four released by Russia included Igor Sutyagin, who was convicted in 2004 of handing over classified information to a British company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover. He was serving a 15-year jail term.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned the four on Thursday after they signed documents admitting they had spied.
The case threatened to set back improving Russia-US relations but the Russian foreign ministry said its outcome showed that the "reset" spearheaded by US President Barack Obama and Medvedev was working.
"The current agreement gives us reason to believe that the course agreed by the leadership of Russia and the United States will be realised in practice and attempts to divert the sides from this course will not meet with success."
The Russian spies, all arrested June 27, included Chapman, whose semi-nude pictures and racy romances made her a global tabloid sensation.
"I hope that I will soon be able to see and embrace my daughter," Chapman's mother, Irina Kushchenko, told the lifenews.ru news website.
Despite the diplomatic storm caused by the spy ring, the group appeared to have been amateurish and made little impact in the decade since being formed.
In court, several defendants acknowledged using fake names. The couple living as Richard and Cynthia Murphy were really Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, while Donald Heathfield's true name was revealed to be Andrey Bezrukov.
Peruvian-American journalist Vicky Pelaez, a firebrand columnist with New York's Spanish-language El Diario newspaper, told how she "brought a letter with invisible ink" to her contact.
Russia sent consular officials to the detained 10 to describe "the life these defendants might be returning to back in Russia," a US prosecutor said.
Alongside Sutyagin, the four released by Russia included Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence sentenced, ex-Russian Foreign Intelligence agent Alexander Zaporozhsky and Gennady Vasilenko about whom far less is known.
The last high-profile swap was in 1984, when US journalist Nicholas Daniloff was expelled from Russia the day before Gennady Zakharov, a Soviet official at the United Nations, came the other way after appearing for less than five minutes before a New York court.
© 2010 AFP