U.S. and Russian flights involved in a 14-person spy swap landed briefly in Vienna, apparently exchanged agents, then took off again in the largest such diplomatic dance since the Cold War.
In a carefully scripted exchange, the two planes arrived within minutes of each other Friday, parked nose-to-tail at a remote section on the tarmac, then spent about an hour and a half there before departing just as quickly.
The swap apparently completed, a Russian Emergencies Ministry Yakovlvev Yak-42 plane left Vienna reportedly carrying 10 agents deported from the U.S. Minutes later, a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 that brought those agents in from New York took off, apparently with four Russians who had confessed to spying for the West.
No information was immediately available as to the planes' destinations. But the Russian flight was thought to heading for Moscow, while the U.S. charter was likely flying to London.
Igor Sutyagin, an arms control researcher convicted of spying for the United States, had told relatives of the spy swap while still in prison and said he was being sent to Vienna and then onto London.
Vienna has long been involved in such Cold War-like machinations, the capital of neutral Austria being a preferred place to work on treaties and agreements meant to reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions.
Both countries won admissions of crimes from the subjects of the exchange — guilty pleas in the U.S. and signed confessions in Russia.
In exchange for the 10 Russian agents, the U.S. won freedom for and access to two former Russian intelligence colonels who had been convicted in their home country of compromising dozens of valuable Soviet-era and Russian agents operating in the West. Two others also convicted of betraying Moscow were wrapped into the deal.
One ex-colonel, Alexander Zaporozhsky, may have exposed information leading to the capture of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, two of the most damaging spies ever caught in the U.S.
U.S. officials said some of those freed by Russia were ailing, and cited humanitarian concerns in part for arranging the swap in such a hurry. They said no substantial benefit to national security was seen from keeping the captured agents in prison for years. Former intelligence operatives agreed.
The 10 Russian agents arrested in the U.S. had tried to blend into American suburbia but been under watch for up to a decade by the FBI. Their access to top U.S. national security secrets appeared spotty at best, although the extent of what they knew and passed on is not publicly known.
The lawyer for one of them, Vicky Pelaez, said the Russian government offered her $2,000 a month for life, housing and help with her children — rather than the years behind bars she could have faced in the U.S. if she had not agreed to the deal.
In an elaborate round of dealmaking, U.S. officials met Monday in Russia with the convicted spies and offered them a chance for freedom if they left their homeland. Russian officials in the U.S. held similar meetings with the agents captured by the FBI.
On Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning the four after officials forced them to sign confessions.
The Kremlin identified the four as Zaporozhsky, Sutyagin, Gennady Vasilenko and Sergei Skripal.
Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for espionage on behalf of the United States. He was convicted on charges of passing secret information about Russian agents working undercover in the United States and about American sources working for Russian intelligence.
Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006. He was accused of revealing the names of several dozen Russian agents working in Europe.
Sutyagin, a military analyst, asserts his innocence despite the confession. He worked with the U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a respected Moscow-based think-tank, before being sentenced to 15 years in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin says the information he provided was available from open sources.
Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB officer employed as a security officer by Russia's NTV television, was sentenced in 2006 to three years in prison on murky charges of illegal weapons possession and resistance to authorities. It was not exactly clear why he was involved in the spy swap.(Agencies)