Cyprus hunts for alleged Russian spy paymaster who jumped bail and disappeared

By Menelaos Hadjicostis, AP
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cyprus hunts for alleged Russian spy who fled

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Red-faced authorities in Cyprus searched airports, ports and yacht marinas Thursday in a hunt for a suspected Russian spy-ring paymaster who vanished after being allowed to walk free on bail.

Police also examined surveillance video from crossing points on the war-divided island, fearing that the suspect may have slipped into the breakaway north of the island, a diplomatic no-mans-land recognized only by Turkey.

Justice Minister Loucas Louca admitted that a judge’s decision to release Christopher Robert Metsos “may have been mistaken” but said authorities were examining leads on his possible whereabouts.

“We have some information and we hope that we will arrest him soon,” Louca told reporters Thursday, without elaborating.

Metsos, 54, is wanted in the United States on charges that he supplied money to the spy ring that operated under deep cover in America’s suburbs. Ten other spy suspects were arrested in the U.S. on Sunday and nine of them faced bail hearings later Thursday. A tenth suspect has already been denied bail and is being detained in the U.S.

Metsos’ disappearance is a major embarrassment to Cyprus. The eastern Mediterranean island favored by tourists used to be a hotbed of Cold War intrigue, as spies converged at the crossroads of three continents — Europe, Africa and Asia. Authorities have promised to do everything possible to find the suspect who claimed he was a tourist traveling on a Canadian passport.

A man in Canada says the passport stole the identity of his dead brother.

Metsos was arrested Tuesday in Cyprus on an Interpol warrant while waiting to board a flight for Budapest, Hungary, but a Cypriot judge freed him on €27,000 ($33,000) bail. Metsos failed to appear Wednesday for a required meeting with police, igniting the manhunt.

Police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos said there were “no indications yet” that Metsos had left the internationally recognized south of the island — and told The Associated Press that “the nagging question of why he was released on bail is best posed to the court, not the police.”

The American ambassador to Cyprus, Frank Urbancic, held an hour-long meeting with Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias on Thursday, but a government but a government spokesman insisted the U.S. had made no formal complaint.

“The investigation is in the hands of the Cypriot government,” a spokesman for the American embassy said when asked if the United States had contacted authorities in northern Cyprus about the fugitive.

The U.S. Justice Department expressed disappointment Thursday.

“As we had feared, having been given unnecessarily the chance to flee,” Christopher Metsos “did so,” said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the department’s national security division.

Boyd said “we’re disappointed that Christopher Metsos was released on bail” after his arrest.

Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup by supporters of union with Greece.

Turkey is bound by Interpol warrants, but northern Cyprus is not and also has no extradition treaties with other countries. Its only air links are to Turkey, but it has ferries that run to Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.

In 1993, businessman Asil Nadir jumped bail and fled Britain for northern Cyprus, where he still resides.

Metsos, however, might feel more at home in the south, where tens of thousands of Russian residents own mansions and offshore accounts, read Russian-language newspapers and send their children to Russian schools.

Cyprus is a top gateway of foreign investment into Russia, and is a popular destination for Russian capital because of low taxes. Cypriot firms have been used as holding companies to avoid taxation in Russia. In recent years, Cyprus took steps to open up bank records so Russian authorities could track tax-dodgers.

The political links are tight, too. Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias is the only communist head of state in the European Union, earned a doctorate in history in Russia and speaks the language. Cyprus authorities are also trying to make it easier to issue travel visas to Russian citizens and cultural ties extend to the religious: Russians recently inaugurated a large Orthdox church.

Katsounotos says Metsos arrived on the island June 17, Cypriot authorities received the Interpol arrest warrant June 25, and he was arrested four days later.

A Turkish Interior Ministry official said Thursday he had no information about any search warrant for Metsos, but if one was issued, Turkish police at airports and ports would be on the lookout for him. He spoke on his department’s customary condition of anonymity.

Turkey’s Mediterranean coast is some 960 miles (1,540 kilometers) long, making it difficult to control, but Turkish authorities frequently intercept illegal migrants trying to sneak in.

About 25 flights take off daily from northern Cyprus to more than a half-dozen Turkish cities.

The island lies in the far eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, a mere 45 miles (72 kilometers) from the southern coast of Turkey, about 110 miles (177 kilometers) from Syria and 145 miles (233 kilometers) from Lebanon.

Crossings between northern and southern Cyprus were forbidden until 2003, when both authorities relaxed restrictions. But police on the two sides of the island have no formal cooperation deals, making it easier for smugglers and fugitives to operate.

“As long as occupation continues and we have this situation with the crossing points, there is a string of problems the government is trying to deal with through all legal means,” government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said.

In the United States, nine others charged in the spying case faced bail hearings Thursday in federal courts in New York, Boston and Alexandria, Virginia.

A tenth defendant, 28-year-old Anna Chapman, was denied bail on Monday. She faces a potential penalty of five years in prison if convicted.

Most of the others are charged with crimes that carry penalties of up to 25 years.

In other notable spy episodes on Cyprus, the stepfather of famous psychic Uri Geller ran a hotel in the mid-1950s that was a front for Israel’s Mossad spy agency, and Geller ran errands for agents.

More recently, former CIA agent Harold James Nicholson — now in prison for espionage — recruited his 24-year-old son Nathaniel to meet Russian agents in cities around the world from 2006 to 2008 to squeeze more money out of them. One of those cities was the Cypriot capital, Nicosia.

Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

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