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Key Russia spy suspect skips bail, vanishes in Cyprus

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, July 1, 2010 8:22 EDT
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MOSCOW (AFP) – Cyprus police have launched an intensive hunt across the Mediterranean island for a key suspect in the Russia-US spy scandal after the alleged Kremlin paymaster jumped bail, a spokesman said Thursday.

US ambassador to Cyprus Frank Urbancic, meanwhile, was scheduled Thursday to meet President Demetris Christofias in Nicosia during which the controversial release on bail of Christopher Metsos, 54, was expected to be raised.

The disappearance of Metsos provided a stunning twist to a Cold War-style espionage saga that has threatened to upset major efforts to reset ties between Washington and Moscow.

Police said all exit points from the Mediterranean island were being monitored was is the line dividing the Turkish-held north from the Greek Cypriot south.

An arrest warrant is now out for Metsos, who could seek to take advantage of the fact that the breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet in the north of the island has no extradition treaties and serves as a well-known haven for fugitives.

A picture of Metsos is also being widely circulated in the hope that the public will help in spotting the fugitive, the police spokesman said.

Metsos was arrested at the island’s Larnaca airport on Tuesday after immigration officers discovered his name on a stop list.

To the dismay of US justice officials, Metsos was not deemed enough of a flight risk to be kept behind bars until he could be extradited to the United States and a local court allowed him to go free on 26,500 euros (32,330 dollars) bail.

He was ordered to surrender his passport and travel documents, pending an extradition hearing on July 29, and told to visit the police station in central Larnaca each day.

But he failed to sign in on Wednesday between 6 and 8 pm as ordered by the court.

Metsos, who purports to be a Canadian citizen, is accused of being the paymaster for a “deep cover” cell of spies in the United States, furnishing them with money and swapping bags covertly with other Russian operatives.

The spy ring was cracked open on Monday as FBI agents finally pounced on 10 alleged Russian agents in Boston, New York and the Washington area after more than a decade of exhaustive surveillance operations.

The remaining 10 spy suspects are likely to be less successful in their bail bids in three separate hearings Thursday to be held in federal courts in Boston, New York and Alexandria, Virginia.

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

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 Wednesday that the department was “not anticipating” any diplomatic actions against Moscow and said the Obama administration wants to “move beyond” the incident.

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.

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

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 White House said Obama knew the FBI was closing in on the spies when he hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a summit three days before the arrests, although he obviously failed to mention it in their meetings.

The criminal complaint filed by the US justice department accuses Metsos of being a paymaster for the SVR foreign intelligence service, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

On one occasion Metsos allegedly provides a suspected Russian spy with 40,000 dollars in cash and is overheard answering his complaints with: “Well, I’m so happy I’m not your handler.”

In scenes straight out of a John Le Carre spy novel, Metsos later performs a “brush-pass” with a Russian government official in which they exchange identical orange bags thought to be full of money.

Metsos allegedly buries half the money in a field in upstate New York, where it is dug up two years later by two sleeper agents accused of seeking to infiltrate US policymaking circles on behalf of the SVR.

Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse
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