Suspect in US-Russia spy case jumps bail in Cyprus

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A spy scandal sparked by the arrest of 11 suspected Kremlin spies in the United States took dramatic turn Wednesday as a Canadian wanted over the alleged espionage jumped bail and vanished in Cyprus.

US authorities on Monday announced the arrest of 10 "deep-cover" suspects accused of infiltrating policymaking and reporting back to Moscow, in a Cold War-like incident that risked derailing the two powers' drive to cement ties.

A key 11th suspect, Christopher Robert Metsos, was arrested by immigration officers at Larnaca airport in Cyprus. He was granted bail but told to check in with police each day, while awaiting an extradition hearing set for July 29.

But Cypriot police found him missing from his hotel after the Canadian failed to sign in at the police station Wednesday. They are seeking a warrant for his arrest, police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos told AFP.

Metsos, 54, arrived June 17 on the divided island, where a breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet in the north has served as a haven for fugitives in the past.

He is said to have been under surveillance in Queens in New York in May 2004 when he received a bag of money from an official linked to Russia's UN mission.

Five of the other accused appeared in court in New York Monday, while according to US documents the spy ring was under FBI surveillance for a decade.

The case harks back to Cold War hostilities with the use of false identities and tales of buried money and hidden video cameras that read like the pages of a spy novel.

Washington and Moscow have sought to downplay the Cold War-style arrests upset, with US officials insisting it will not damage President Barack Obama's vaunted "reset" of ties with the Kremlin.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had described the operation as solely a "law enforcement" matter and which said will not "affect the reset of our relationship with Russia."

The State Department has styled the episode as a remnant of the Cold War covert intelligence struggle between spymasters in Moscow and Washington that would not have a lasting impact on ties.

Spokesman Philip Crowley reaffirmed Wedneday that the department was "not anticipating" any diplomatic actions against Moscow spying and that the Obama administration wants to "move beyond" the incident.

During the Cold War, the discovery of spy rings often led to expulsion of diplomats by either the United States or Soviet Union, which sometimes triggered similar responses from the other side.

But Crowley said that "I'm not aware that we're going to expel any diplomat at this point."

The Russian foreign ministry -- which initially demanded explanations from Washington, dismissing the arrests as groundless -- has since said it expects the scandal will not hurt relations given the United States' muted response.

The scandal nevertheless remains a major embarrassment for the White House and the Kremlin, not least because it broke just days after US President Barack Obama met his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev for a summit.

The White House said Obama knew the FBI was closing in on the 11 alleged spies when he met Medvedev at the summit -- which was marked by jolly bonhomie and a chummy burger bar trip -- although he did not mention it.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- who by an odd coincidence was meeting former US president Bill Clinton in Moscow late Tuesday -- was critical of the arrests but said he hoped they would not impact on ties.

"You came at the right time. Your police have let themselves go, and put people in prison," the ex-KGB agent told his American visitor.

"I expect that the positive tendency in relations over the last years is not harmed," Putin said.

Russian media have poured scorn on the scandal, with newspapers fuming that the affair was trumped up by people inside the United States bent on discrediting Obama's policy of reconciliation with Russia.

The Kommersant newspaper reported that Russia's "eloquent speakers" -- talkative mid-ranking officials who often speak on such issues -- had been ordered not to make public comments so as not to fan the flames.

© 2010 AFP

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