Spy swap with Russia now underway

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By The Staff

NEW YORK (AP) — The largest Russia-U.S. spy swap since the Cold War appeared to be in motion Thursday, with up to 10 guilty pleas planned in New York by defendants accused of spying for Russia in exchange for the release of convicted Russian spies. A Russian convicted of spying for the United States was reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and flown to Vienna.

A swap would have significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.

The 10 defendants who entered a New York courtroom for a hearing Thursday afternoon wanted to enter guilty pleas, prosecutor Michael Farbiarz said at the start of the proceeding before Judge Kimba Wood. An 11th person charged in the case is a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus.

"It's a resolution that will put this thing behind him as quickly as we can arrange it," said Peter Krupp, an attorney for Donald Heathfield, before the hearing. He would not say whether the plea involves a swap.

One person familiar with the plea negotiations told The Associated Press that most of the defendants expected to be going home to Russia later Thursday. The person was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter in advance of the plea and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms control analyst serving a 14-year sentenced for spying for the United States, had told his relatives he was going to be one of 11 convicted spies in Russia who would be freed in exchange for 11 people charged in the United States with being Russian agents. They said he was going to be sent to Vienna, then London.

In Moscow, his lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said a journalist called Igor Sutyagin's family to inform them that Sutyagin was seen walking off a plane in Vienna on Thursday. However, she told The Associated Press she couldn't get confirmation of that claim from Russian authorities.

Officials in neither country would confirm an exchange was planned. But the machinations — including a meeting in Washington between U.S. officials and the Russian ambassador on Wednesday — had all the hallmarks as the two former Cold War antagonists moved to tamp down tensions stirred up by the U.S. arrests.

"A swap seems very much on the cards. There is political will on both sides, and actually by even moving it as far as they have, Moscow has de facto acknowledged that these guys were spies," intelligence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said.

Five suspects charged with spying in the U.S. were hurriedly ordered to New York on Wednesday, joining five others already behind bars there, after Sutyagin, a Russian arms-control researcher, spilled the news of the swap after being transferred to Moscow from his forlorn penal colony near the Arctic Circle.

Dmitry Sutyagin said his brother was told he was among a dozen convicted spies to be exchanged for Russians arrested by the FBI. He said his brother could be sent to Vienna, then onto London, as early as Thursday, and remembered only one other person on the list — Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russian military intelligence who in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years on charges of spying for Britain.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron would not confirm or deny a possible US-Russian spy swap taking place in London. "This is primarily an issue for the U.S. authorities," spokesman Steve Field said.

But defense lawyers in Moscow and New York have expressed confidence that their clients' fates would be settled very soon.

In a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, the ten suspects in New York and an 11th person, who was released on bail by a court in Cyprus and is now a fugitive, were formally charged.

The indictment charged all with conspiring to act as secret agents and charged nine of them with conspiracy to commit money laundering. It demanded that those accused of money laundering return any assets used in the offense.

Attorney Robert Baum, who represents defendant Anna Chapman, said the case might be settled when she and the other nine people arrested in the United States appear Thursday for arraignment on the indictment, raising the possibility of guilty pleas to the lowest charges and deportation from the U.S..

"Of certain events tomorrow that might occur, the fact the indictment is minimal makes perfect sense. This is a crazy situation," said Robert J. Krakow, an attorney for defendant Juan Lazaro.

Prosecutors released a copy of the indictment as federal judges in Boston and Alexandria, Virginia, signed orders directing that five defendants arrested in Massachusetts and Virginia be transferred to New York. All were charged in Manhattan.

The defendants were accused of living seemingly ordinary lives in America while they acted as unregistered agents for the Russian government, sending secret messages and carrying out orders they received from their Russian contacts.

All have remained in custody except for a man identified as Christopher R. Metsos, the 11th suspect who is charged with being the spy ring's paymaster. Metsos, traveling on a forged Canadian passport, jumped bail last week after being arrested in Cyprus.

U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in New York signed an order Wednesday requiring that defendant Vicky Pelaez, Lazaro's wife, remain detained until the judge can hear an appeal Friday by the U.S. government of a $250,000 bail package approved last week. Pelaez is a U.S. citizen.

Sutyagin, who worked as an arms control and military analyst at the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a think tank, was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin has all along denied that he was spying, saying the information he provided was available from open sources.

His case was one of several incidents of Russian academics and scientists being targeted by Russia's Federal Security Service and accused of misusing classified information, revealing state secrets or, in some cases, espionage.


AP writers Misha Japaridze, Vladimir Isachenkov, Jim Heintz and Khristina Narizhnaya in Moscow, Calvin Woodward, Pete Yost and Matt Lee in Washington, Matt Barakat in Alexandria, Va., Denise Lavoie in Boston, Larry Neumeister and Tom Hays in New York, and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.