Russia spy scandal '11th man' vanishes in Cyprus

1st July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Police were on Thursday hunting for a key suspect in the Russia-US spy scandal who vanished in Cyprus, as 10 other alleged Kremlin spies were due to appear before US courts to request bail.

In a stunning twist to a Cold War-style espionage saga that has threatened to upset efforts to reset US-Russia ties, Christopher Metsos, in his mid-50s, was arrested but then disappeared after a Cypriot court released him on bail.

The alleged spy ring was cracked earlier this week as FBI agents finally pounced on 10 alleged Russian agents in Boston, New York and the Washington area after more than a decade of exhaustive surveillance operations.

After initially reacting with fury, Russia has since been at pains to prevent the scandal spiralling into a major diplomatic crisis and said it does not expect the incident to harm relations.

But the Russian press has been highly sceptical, questioning if the suspects were really spies and blaming the scandal on elements in the United States opposed to President Barack Obama's policy of reconciliation with Russia.

"It's as if James Bond finally opens his super briefcase -- and all you find inside are some socks and some chicken wrapped in foil," wrote the pro-Kremlin mass circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Metsos, who purports to be a Canadian citizen, is accused of being the paymaster for a "deep cover" cell of spies in the United States, furnishing them with money and swapping bags covertly with other Russian operatives.

He was arrested early on Tuesday at Cyprus's Larnaca airport as he tried to board a flight to Budapest. But he was not deemed enough of a flight risk to be kept behind bars until he could be extradited to the United States.

There was no sign of the suspected secret agent when Cypriot police rushed to his hotel room on Wednesday after he failed to sign in at a Larnaca police station between 6 and 8 pm, breaking the terms of his bail.

Cypriot police Thursday said all exit points from the Mediterranean island were being monitored as was the line dividing the Turkish-held north from the Greek Cypriot south.

A picture of Metsos is also being widely circulated, a police spokesman said. Cypriot media have raised questions over how Metsos managed to slip away but the government defended the police.

"If we were surveying him 24 hours a day it would have been a restriction and a violation of his rights," said government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou.

The remaining 10 spy suspects are to have their bail requests heard in three separate hearings Thursday to be held in federal courts in Boston, New York and Alexandria, Virginia.

The case of the 11 alleged "deep cover" agents who are suspected of trying to infiltrate US policymaking circles harks back to Cold War hostilities, with the use of false identities and tales of buried money and hidden video cameras.

Much attention has been paid to Russian suspect Anna Chapman, 28, described as a flame-haired femme fatale in the tabloids and accused of using elaborate communication rituals to pass information to her Russian handler.

Russian media have reported that Chapman is a young businesswoman who moved in the highest sections of society, the daughter of a former Russian ambassador to Kremlin and the ex-wife of a British executive of a French supermarket firm.

But the Russian foreign ministry Thursday declined to comment on how many of the 11 implicated in the scandal were Russian citizens.

The White House said Obama knew the FBI was closing in on the spies when he hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a summit three days before the arrests, although it appears he failed to mention it in their meetings.

Medvedev has yet to comment on the scandal although strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has criticised US law enforcement authorities, while saying he hoped the scandal would not harm ties.

© 2010 AFP

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