Famed Russian spy and defector Sergei Tretyakov dead

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Sergei Tretyakov, a former top Russian spy who defected to the United States after running espionage operations at the United Nations, has died, his wife and a friend said Friday. He was 53.

In an odd timing of the events, his death was announced on the same day that Russia and the United States completed their largest spy swap since the hazy days of the Cold War.

Tretyakov, who defected to the United States in October 2000 after five years at the helm of Russian operations at the United Nations during which he claimed to have helped divert half a billion dollars to Moscow, died on June 13 of a heart attack at home, his friend Pete Earley wrote on his blog.

"Sergei was called 'the most important spy for the US since the collapse of the Soviet Union' by an FBI official in my book," Earley said about his 2008 biographical piece.

"Unfortunately, because much of what he said is still being used by US counter-intelligence officers, it will be years before the true extent of his contribution can be made public -- if ever."

Citing an unnamed FBI official, Earley said an autopsy had been completed and there was no sign of foul play.

In keeping with Russian Orthodox tradition, a private funeral took place three days after Tretyakov's death and over 200 people -- including close friends, neighbors and people who had worked with him in the United States -- attended a private service on the ninth day, according to Earley.

Earlier Friday, 10 Russian spies rounded up in an FBI swoop last month were deported and flown straight from New York to Vienna, where they were exchanged for four top ex-Russian spies as Moscow and Washington seek to warm ties long chilled by an atmosphere of growing suspicion.

The spy saga fueled suspicion that Tretyakov had tipped off US authorities about the alleged Russian agents, who were mostly living under the cover of unremarkable American suburban lifestyles.

But in first announcing his death, his widow Helen Tretyakov told WTOP radio in Washington that her husband did not know the arrested group of 10.

Tretyakov was born October 5, 1956 in Moscow. He joined the KGB, rising quickly through its ranks to become second-in-command of its office in New York from 1995 to 2000.

His defection with his wife and daughter, Ksenia, went unknown to the public until Earley published his book "Comrade J" in 2008.

During a book tour, Tretyakov also revealed that his agents helped the Russian government scam hundreds of millions of dollars from the UN oil-for food program in Iraq before Saddam Hussein's regime fell in 2003.

From the decade that followed his defection, the FBI kept a close eye on the 10 alleged Russian agents. Another alleged Russian spy was arrested in Cyprus and is now on the loose.

Tretyakov told US officials when he was debriefed about Russia's "illegal" operations but was not personally familiar with the people who were arrested, Earley said, citing an "informed" source.

© 2010 AFP

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