MOSCOW/VIENNA, (Reuters) – Russia and the United States conducted the biggest spy swap since the Cold War yesterday, trading agents on the Vienna airport tarmac in an evocative climax to an espionage drama that had threatened improving ties.
Two aircraft — one Russian, one American — parked side by side for about 90 minutes. The agents changed places under the cover of gangways as waves of heat rose from the tarmac.
The Russian plane then took off, followed by the U.S. jet in an echo of Soviet-era spy trades across the Iron Curtain in Central Europe. Officials in Vienna, once a center of Cold War intrigue, maintained a news blackout.
The U.S. Justice Department said shortly after the takeoff that the exchange of 10 agents released by Washington and four freed by Moscow had been successfully completed.
The plane landed at Domodedovo airport outside Moscow a few hours later. Shielded from cameras, the Russians stepped off and were driven away in a convoy of SUVs, sedans and buses.
Later, a plane believed to be carrying Russians freed in the swap landed at Dulles airport outside Washington, CNN said. It was unclear how many of the four were on board.
The conclusion to the espionage drama was played out after spymasters brokered the deal on the instructions of presidents keen not to derail breakthroughs in Russian-U.S. relations.
In the first step of the carefully choreographed swap, the 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty on Thursday in a New York court to charges against them and were immediately deported.