Russian agents head home after US spy exchange

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The United States Friday sent back ten spies to Russia in exchange for four Russian convicts after the most dramatic spy swap since the height of the Cold War.

The Kremlin agents, most of whom had lived under assumed identities in the United States for years under deep cover, were put on a plane home immediately after their final court hearing, US media and Russian officials said.

The 10 pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to acting as illegal agents for Moscow and were ordered expelled from the United States, never to return.

A Russian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP the Kremlin agents were expected to arrive in Russia on Friday.

The Russian foreign ministry in a statement said the deal 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 four released by Russia include three men convicted for spying for the West in well-publicised cases and another more shadowy individual about whom far less is known.

The case threatened to set back improving Russia-US relations but the Russian foreign ministry said its outcome showed that the "reset" spearheaded by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry 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 Russian Anna 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," Anna Chapman's mother, Irina Kushchenko, told the news website.

Despite the headlines, however, the spy ring appeared to have been amateurish and made little impact in the decade since being formed.

"No significant national security benefit would be gained from the prolonged incarceration in the United States of these 10 unlawful agents," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

US Attorney General Eric Holder described an "extraordinary case developed through years of work by investigators, intelligence lawyers, and prosecutors."

In the final court session, several of the defendants acknowledged using fake names to hide in deep cover. The defendants 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, gave a tantalizing hint of more James Bond-style activities, saying in Spanish through an interpreter that she "brought a letter with invisible ink" to her contact.

Russia went to great lengths to ease the deal, sending consular officials to the detained 10 to describe "the life these defendants might be returning to back in Russia," a US prosecutor said.

The four jailed convicts in Russia were forced to confess their crimes in order to be pardoned by President Dmitry Medvedev, a move that has already caused concern among rights activists.

The best known of the four is arms control expert Igor Sutyagin, who was convicted in 2004 of spying for the United States via a British company.

Also to be exchanged was 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 father of Sutyagin said he was still unaware of his son's whereabouts but suggested he may have left Russia.

"I think he's already been expelled," his father, Vyacheslav Sutyagin, told AFP by phone. "We are waiting for a phone call. Since Igor is a responsible man, we are hoping he'll send us a message," he said.

The last high-profile swap was back 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

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