The biggest spy swap since the Cold War took place today when Russian and US planes flew into Vienna to exchange agents, defusing an espionage drama that had threatened improving relations.
Two planes involved in the swap - one Russian, one American - parked side by side on the tarmac at Vienna airport for around an hour and a half as vehicles shuttled between them. The Russian plane then took off, followed by the US jet.
Officials in Vienna, itself once a centre of Cold War intrigue, maintained a strict news blackout throughout. But an unidentified Russian security official confirmed the agents arrested in the United States had left Vienna on a plane bound for Russia, Russian news agencies reported.
Moscow and Washington had earlier agreed to swap 10 Russian agents held in the United States for four Russians jailed in Russia on charges of spying for the West.
The dramatic conclusion to the espionage scandal which has gripped America came after spymasters brokered the deal on the instructions of presidents keen not to derail a series of important diplomatic breakthroughs in Russian-US relations.
In the first step of the carefully choreographed swap, the 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty yesterday in a New York court to charges against them and were immediately deported.
Around midnight local time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russians serving long prison terms in their homeland on charges of spying for the West.
Some of those accused in the US boarded a plane in New York last night and the same Vision Airlines jet landed in Vienna today, a Reuters witness said.
As the planes stood parked in the bright sunshine, some people were seen boarding the Russian Emergency Ministry jet and others boarded the Vision Airlines airliner. The Russian aircraft then took off, followed about 10 minutes later by the US jet.
"The United States has agreed to transfer these individuals to the custody of the Russian Federation," the United States Justice Department said on Thursday.
"In exchange, the Russian Federation has agreed to release four individuals who are incarcerated in Russia for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies," it said.
The spy scandal broke at an awkward time for US-Russian ties, just days after President Barack Obama and Medvedev met for a friendly Washington summit last month.
The US and Russian legislatures are considering ratification of major nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the presidents in April, and Russia is counting on US support for its bid to join the World Trade Organisation - sensitive cooperation neither side wants to jeopardise.
Medvedev is trying to present a warmer face to Western governments and investors concerned about persistent problems with corruption, property rights and the rule of law in Russia.
Obama wants Russia on his side for efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear programme, keep supply lines open to forces in Afghanistan and advance his goal of further nuclear arms cuts.
Shortly after taking office he initiated a "reset" in ties with the kremlin, strained to the breaking point by Moscow's war with Georgia in 2008 after deteriorating badly during the administrations of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, now Russia's powerful prime minister.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the spy swap "gives reason to expect that the course agreed on by the leaders of Russia and the US will be consistently implemented in practice and that attempts to knock the parties off this course will not succeed".
But the exchange - which one Russian internet site quipped was "Russia 10: USA 4" - may add fuel to Republican accusations that Obama is being too soft on Moscow. A key 11th suspect name by US authorities disappeared after being granted bail following his arrest in Cyprus.
Relatives of the jailed Russians on both sides of the swap had waited anxiously in Russia for news of the exchange. All bar one of the 14 involved are Russian citizens.
The mother of one of those arrested in the United States, Anna Chapman, left her apartment building in southwestern Moscow and hailed a car on a busy avenue after brushing off reporters.
"I don't want to say anything," Irina Kushchenko said.
Chapman was the star of the spy scandal, labelled a party-hoppping "sexy redhead" by tabloids worldwide that splashed her picture across their pages.
Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) declined all comment on details of the affair.
Moscow has always prided itself on bringing trusted agents back home and Washington has agreed to swaps before, though rarely on this scale.
The largest known Cold War spy swap was in 1985 when more than 20 spies were exchanged between East and West on the Glienicke Bridge in the divided city of Berlin.
Spymasters on both sides say that despite generally warmer relations, the two former Cold War foes still fund generous intelligence operations against each other.
The scandal broke when the United States said on June 28 it had uncovered a ring of suspected Russian secret agents who were using false identities to try to gather sensitive intelligence on the United States.
FBI counter-intelligence agents explained that the Russians had communicated with Moscow by concealing invisible text messages in photographs posted on public internet sites and some had met Russian diplomats from the US mission in New York.
Russian diplomats said the timing of the announcement, just days after Obama and Medvedev's June 24 summit in Washington, could be an attempt by US hardliners to torpedo the so-called reset in ties that Obama has championed.Reuse content