US deports Kremlin agents to Russia in spy swap drama

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Ten Russian spies headed for home Friday after being released by the United States in a sensational Cold War-style exchange for four Western agents.

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.

The case, which threatened to set back improving relations between the White House and the Kremlin, reached its dramatic conclusion when the agents were put on a plane to Moscow late Thursday just hours after their court appearance, NY1 television reported.

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

Moscow has in turn agreed to release four Russians convicted of spying for Western countries.

The spies, all arrested June 27, included Russian Anna Chapman, whose nude pictures and racy romances made her a global tabloid sensation, and Peruvian-American journalist Vicky Pelaez, who admitted to carrying a letter written in invisible ink.

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.

"And the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests," Holder said in a statement.

In New York, Federal Judge Kimba Wood rushed through the procedure, sentencing the 10 to "time served" within minutes of hearing them plead guilty.

With Washington keen to draw a line under the affair before it seriously upsets improving Russian-US ties, the court session was notable for the lack of light shed on the agents' activities.

Speaking in English in accents ranging from thick Russian to American, all but Pelaez admitted they were Russian. Several also acknowledged using fake names to hide in deep cover.

For example, 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.

Only 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.

Pelaez, unlike the others, is a US citizen. But a senior US official said that as part of the deal, she agreed never to return to the United States unless authorized by the attorney general.

The plea agreement also states that if any of the suspects want to profit in the future by selling details of their case, the proceeds would go to the US government, the official added.

US officials said the four jailed agents in Russia were forced to confess to charges there as part of the deal.

"I leave it to the individuals involved to tell their stories, including their years of imprisonment. But in order to get out of jail, they had no choice but to sign the Russian government oath," the US official said.

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.

Pelaez, the court heard, was promised free housing in Russia, a 2,000-dollar monthly stipend "for life," and visas for her children to visit.

Outside the courthouse, a lawyer for Chapman, founder of a successful New York real estate company, said his client was "glad to be released from jail" but "unhappy that it has probably destroyed her business and that she has to return to Moscow."

In Moscow, a spokesman for President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed he had pardoned four Russians, including arms control expert Igor Sutyagin.

A lawyer for Sutyagin, who was sent to the frozen wastelands of Arkhangelsk after being convicted in 2004, said her client may already have been released and taken to Vienna.

Also to be exchanged was Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence sentenced in 2006 to 13 years jail on charges of spying for Britain.

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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