Dramatic end to US-Russia spy scandal; 14 agents swapped



Dramatic end to US-Russia spy scandal; 14 agents swapped Moscow/Washington: Russia and the US on Friday exchanged 14 secret agents in their biggest spy swap deal since the Cold War in dramatic style, burying a major irritant which had the potential to snowball into a major crisis.

US swapped 10 Russian spies for four American agents under a deal at Vienna airport, reflecting the "high level of trust" between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev.

The spying saga which unfolded late last month had the potential to snowball into a major crisis, after Obama recently met Medvedev and 'reset' their troubled ties.

Special Russian and US planes took the spies to the Austrian capital Vienna returned within 15 minutes of each other after staging the dramatic swap.

A US jet carrying the 10 members of a Russian spy ring caught in the US arrived from New York and parked next to a Russian plane that reportedly brought four Russians jailed for working for US and other Western nations.

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."

Both the nations swapped 10 Russian spies for four Russians, who were acting as American agents and serving jail terms in Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry here confirmed the swap deal. "The relevant agreement has been reached between the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the US Central Intelligence Agency in the general context of improving Russian-US relations," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

"The swap deal became possible thanks to a new positive spirit of the Russia-US relations and a high level of understanding and trust between the presidents of the two countries, which no one will be able to undermine," a Kremlin source was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS.

Symbolising warmed US-Russia ties, Obama and Medvedev travelled in the same presidential limousine from the White House to the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, for lunch at "Ray's Hell-Burger" on June 24.

"All ten spy suspects earlier pleaded guilty in a New York court to failing to register as foreign agents.

They also revealed their true identities and forfeited assets attributable to the criminal offences," RIA Novosti reported quoting the Justice Department release.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement, "the United States and the Russian Federation agreed that the United States would transfer these individuals abroad and turn them over to Russian authorities. The Russian Federation, in turn, would release four individuals incarcerated in the Russian Federation."

"No significant national security benefit would be gained from the prolonged incarceration in the United States of these ten unlawful agents," he said.

The four American spy suspects were not immediately named, but reports from Moscow indicated that the government was preparing to release Igor Sutyagin, a prominent Russian scientist who has been imprisoned for 11 years on espionage charges he has steadfastly denied.

"This was 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," Attorney General Eric Holder said.

"I think in many respects the handling of this case and its aftermath reflects the progress that we've made in US-Russian relations," said a senior Administration official.

The alleged Russian spies left from New York's La Guardia airport on board a US government chartered plane to Moscow and agreed never to return without permission from the attorney general.

Under the exchange deal, Russia released four Russian prisoners and allowed them to settle in the US with their families.

The Kremlin announced that Medvedev had signed a decree pardoning Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin convicted and serving various prison terms in Russia for spying for Western intelligence agencies.

"All four had appealed to the Russian president to free them after admitting their crimes against the Russian state", Kremlin spokesperson Natalia Timakova said.

The government-run RIA Novosti released following details about the spies pardoned by Medvedev under the swap deal: Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms control and nuclear weapons specialist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Archangelsk, northwest Russia, in April 2004 for sharing state secrets with US military intelligence.

Sergei Skripal, a former GRU Military Intelligence colonel, was sentenced in 2006 to 13 years in prison for spying for Britain.

He had allegedly shared information on dozens of his former colleagues operating in Europe undercover, in particular their secret meeting places, addresses, and passwords. Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB agent, was arrested in 1998 on suspicion of spying for the United States.

He was released six months later but arrested again in 2005 and sentenced to three years in prison for illegal weapons possession and resistance to authorities while working as a security chief for Russia's NTV television.

Alexander Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), was sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for espionage on behalf of the United States.

PTI