Russian media blackout over fate of 10 Kremlin spies

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Russia virtually imposed a news blackout on Saturday on questions linked to 10 spies brought back from the United States in the biggest spy swap between the superpowers since the Cold War.

On Friday, the Kremlin brought its 10 agents home who were swiftly loaded into two minivans and whisked from Moscow's Domodedovo airport in an unknown direction.

By Saturday afternoon, the docile Russian media appeared to have lost its taste for the riveting cloak-and-dagger story that has fascinated a global audience for nearly two weeks.

A brief but rare tornado over a Saint Petersburg suburb, the 60th birthday of Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych and a major manhunt in Britain dominated television news.

The country's three main news agencies did not report on the whereabouts and fate of the ten spies.

Although several television channels mentioned the spy story, they zeroed in on the four Russians convicted of spying for the West and taken out of the United States in exchange for the Kremlin agents.

Citing British and US media, Russian television said the spies were welcomed with open arms in the West.

The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper disparagingly said the departure of arms expert Igor Sutyagin, one of the four released Russians, was a major blow for human rights groups who it said had always defended a spy.

Russian authorities on Saturday declined to comment on the ten agents.

"We still do not comment on these events," a spokesman for Russia's foreign intelligence service SVR told AFP.

He refused to react to a report in Russia's online newspaper that a motorcade of three cars had taken the agents to the Moscow-based SVR headquarters as soon as they arrived.

A spokesman for the foreign ministry said he did not have any information on the possible whereabouts of the spies. The emergency situations ministry, whose plane carried them, also declined comment.

"We do not involve ourselves with shipping operations," a ministry spokesman said curtly.

The country's top sensationalist website said that at least one of the 10 agents -- the 28-year old red-head Anna Chapman who fascinated tabloids around the world -- had contacted her family upon arrival.

"Ania called her sister from the Domodedovo airport and said a few words: 'Everything is fine, we've landed,'" the report quoted an unidentified family friend as saying.

The spy scandal has caused a diplomatic storm, overnight becoming a major media sensation that had threatened to derail improving ties between Russia and the United States.

The two countries swapped the spies at Vienna airport, exchanging the 10 agents deported by US authorities for the four freed by Russia in a perfectly choreographed operation so as to save the much touted "reset."

And after several days of silence, arms expert Sutyagin resurfaced in Britain, calling his wife Saturday and saying he was at a hotel in a "small town" near London, his brother Dmitry Sutyagin told AFP.

Sutyagin was with another of the four Russians, said his brother, adding he did not know who he was.

The plane that on Friday took the four out of the country reportedly made a brief stop at the Brize Norton air base in central England before landing in the United States.

According to earlier British media reports, Sutyagin and Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence GRU convicted of spying for Britain, were dropped off in the UK.

© 2010 AFP

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