VIENNA, AUSTRIA - Russian and US jets on Friday brought 14 spies from either side to Vienna for the biggest espionage agent swap since the Cold War.
A US jet carrying 10 members of a Russian spy ring caught in the United States arrived from New York and parked next to a Russian government jet believe to have brought four Russians jailed for working for Western nations.
The main doors to the two jets were hidden from media gathered at Vienna airport hoping for a sight of the glamorous Anna Chapman and a top Russian armaments expert who were among the group.
Vienna has not seen was anything like this since the Cold War, when it was a traditional venue for espionage rivalry.
Russia confirmed that a deal had been agreed with the United States aiming to end the biggest spy scandal between them in two decades.
The Russian foreign ministry said the bargain involved the "return to Russia of 10 Russian citizens accused in the United States, along with the simultaneous transfer to the United States of four individuals previously condemned in Russia."
The United States sent back the 10 Kremlin agents late Thursday after they appeared in a New York court and pleaded guilty to acting as illegal agents for Moscow. They were ordered expelled from the United States.
The four released by Russia include three men convicted for spying for the West in well-publicised cases and another more shadowy individual about whom far less is known.
The case threatened to set back improving Russia-US relations but the Russian foreign ministry said its outcome showed that the "reset" spearheaded by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev was working.
"The current agreement gives us reason to believe that the course agreed by the leadership of Russia and the United States will be realised in practice and attempts to divert the sides from this course will not meet with success."
The Russian spies, all arrested June 27, included Anna Chapman, whose semi-nude pictures and racy romances made her a global tabloid sensation.
"I hope that I will soon be able to see and embrace my daughter," Anna Chapman's mother, Irina Kushchenko, told the lifenews.ru news website.
Despite the diplomatic storm caused by the spy ring, the group appeared to have been amateurish and made little impact in the decade since being formed.
"No significant national security benefit would be gained from the prolonged incarceration in the United States of these 10 unlawful agents," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
US Attorney General Eric Holder described an "extraordinary case developed through years of work by investigators, intelligence lawyers, and prosecutors."
In the final court session, several of the defendants acknowledged using fake names to hide in deep cover. The defendants living as Richard and Cynthia Murphy were really Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, while Donald Heathfield's true name was revealed to be Andrey Bezrukov.
Peruvian-American journalist Vicky Pelaez, a firebrand columnist with New York's Spanish-language El Diario newspaper, gave a tantalizing hint of more James Bond-style activities, saying in Spanish through an interpreter that she "brought a letter with invisible ink" to her contact.
Russia went to great lengths to ease the deal, sending consular officials to the detained 10 to describe "the life these defendants might be returning to back in Russia," a US prosecutor said.
The four jailed convicts in Russia were forced to confess their crimes in order to be pardoned by President Dmitry Medvedev, a move that has already caused concern among rights activists.
The best known of the four is arms control expert Igor Sutyagin, who was convicted in 2004 of spying for the United States through a British company.
Also to be exchanged was Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence sentenced, ex-Russian Foreign Intelligence agent Alexander Zaporozhsky and Gennady Vasilenko about whom far less is known.
The father of Sutyagin said he was still unaware of his son's whereabouts but suggested he may have left Russia.
"I think he's already been expelled," his father, Vyacheslav Sutyagin, told AFP by phone. "We are waiting for a phone call. Since Igor is a responsible man, we are hoping he'll send us a message," he said.
The last high-profile swap was back in 1984, when US journalist Nicholas Daniloff was expelled from Russia the day before Gennady Zakharov, a Soviet official at the United Nations, came the other way after appearing for less than five minutes before a New York court.