Russia demands explanation for US spy arrests

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Russia angrily hit back Tuesday at US claims that it had smashed a Moscow-organised spy ring, warning the spat could damage efforts to improve relations.

US authorities said 10 "deep-cover" suspects, accused of infiltrating policymaking for the Kremlin, had been detained for seeking details of US nuclear weapons and foreign policy.

Five accused appeared in court in New York on Monday and some of the suspects are apparently Russian nationals. According to US documents, the spy ring had been under FBI surveillance for a decade.

The Russian foreign ministry condemned the spy allegations made by the US Justice Department. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded an explanation of the charges.

"In our opinion, such actions are groundless and pursue unseemly aims," a foreign ministry spokesman said.

"In any case, it is highly deplorable that all of this is happening against the background of the reset in Russia-US ties announced by the US administration itself."

The arrests Sunday in four northeastern US states came only three days after President Barack Obama described his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev as a "solid and reliable partner" at a White House summit.

"They did not explain what the matter is about. I hope they will," Russia's Lavrov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying during a visit to Jerusalem. "The moment when it was done has been chosen with a special finesse," he said with apparent sarcasm.

Russian foreign ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov told AFP there were a "lot of contradictions" in the information about the case.

The White House has yet to comment on the case which harks back to Cold War hostilities with the use of false identities and tales of buried money and hidden video cameras. US authorities said an 11th suspect remains at large.

"You were sent to USA for long-term service trip," read a message decrypted by the FBI and said to be from the Moscow headquarters of the SVR intelligence service, a successor to the communist-era KGB.

"Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. -- all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in US and send intel to C (Moscow Center)."

The 10 are charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government, which carries a maximum of five years' jail. Nine were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, carries a maximum penalty of 20 years prison.

The Justice Department charge sheet told how one message from Moscow asked for "info on current international affairs".

"Try to single out tidbits unknown publicly but revealed in private by sources close to State Department, government, major think tanks," it said.

Other requests included information on US policy on Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, and a new weapons treaty between US and Russia, and even "prospects on the global gold market."

One alleged spy met with an unnamed US nuclear scientist seeking information on research into nuclear "bunker buster" bombs -- explosives proposed under President George W. Bush, but never built -- the charge sheet read.

The suspects used false identities to manufacture the trappings of ordinary American lives and blend into society.

Two allegedly pretended to be a married couple called Richard and Cynthia Murphy from Philadelphia; another pair purported to be Peruvians living in Yonkers and were known as Juan Lazaro and Vicky Pelaez, while another purported to be Tracy Lee Ann Foley, a native of Canada but a naturalized US citizen.

Judge James Cott ordered five suspects that appeared Monday in New York to remain in custody until a July 27 preliminary hearing. A bail hearing was set for Thursday.

The other suspects are set to appear before courts in Virginia and Massachusetts.

All suspects were charged with spying for the SVR. Nine face charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The suspects allegedly used encrypted data in images on public websites and coded "radiograms" set at special frequencies to communicate with Moscow Center.

For more than 10 years the FBI gathered information by covertly placing microphones at the homes of the suspects, and in hotel rooms, and by monitoring their phone calls and emails.

A key suspect, named as Christopher Metsos who is at large, was under surveillance in Queens, New York in May 2004 when he received a bag of money from an official associated with Russia's UN mission, the complaint alleges.

Two more suspects were followed in June 2006 to Wurstboro, New York, where they dug up a package of money buried by Metsos.

The arrests were made in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and in northern Virginia, just outside the US capital Washington.

© 2010 AFP

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