US spy ring suspects 'admit they are Russians'

Artist's impression of Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills in court 1/7/10 The suspects were living in Virginia with two young children

Two of the 11 members of a suspected spy ring in the US have admitted they are Russian citizens, prosecutors say.

Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills say their real names are Mikhail Kutzik and Natalia Pereverzeva, court papers say.

They and a third suspect, Mikhail Semenko, appeared in court in Virginia briefly on Friday.

Another man, Juan Lazaro, was already said to have admitted to prosecutors that he had worked for Russia's intelligence service.

The 11 are accused of conspiracy to act as unlawful agents of a foreign government, a crime less serious than espionage but which carries up to five years in prison.

At the scene

The district courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, has seen its share of drama. Zacarias Moussaoui - who helped plan the 9/11 attacks - was tried here, so too was the so-called "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.

But not since the espionage trial of former FBI double agent Robert Hanssen has the courthouse seen anything quite like this.

Dozens of journalists waited as first the suspects known as Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, and then Mikhail Semenko, were brought before the judge wearing green prison jumpsuits.

All three waived their right to a bail hearing and will return to court on Wednesday. But an eager public may have to wait a little longer to learn their impact on US security.

Neither they nor the other alleged members of this spy ring are thought to have had access to the sort of secrets that formed part of Hanssen's daily life, but the troubling question, yet to be answered, is: how many others are out there, leading double lives in the American suburbs?

Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played down speculation that the affair could cool the warming relations between Washington and Moscow.

"We're committed to building a new and positive relation with Russia," she was quoted as saying during a visit to Ukraine.

"We're looking toward the future."

Moscow initially reacted angrily to the claims but has subsequently said the affair will not harm relations.

It also confirmed that at least some of the suspects were Russian citizens, without giving details.

In Virginia, the couple living under the names Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills had fake passports and about $100,000 (£66,000) in cash, prosecutors say.

The items were being stored in safety deposit boxes along with other false identity papers, they say.

The couple were detained in Arlington, just outside Washington DC, where they were living with two young children.

They and Mikhail Semenko waived their right to a detention hearing during a brief court hearing in Alexandria, Virginia, on Friday.

All three were ordered to be detained and their preliminary hearing was set for Wednesday.

Mr Semenko, who worked at a local Russian travel agency, is not accused of using a false identity.

Bail granted

On Thursday, journalist Vicky Pelaez was granted bail in New York after the judge said she was a US citizen and did not appear to have been trained as a spy.

SPY RING SUSPECTS

  • Vicky Pelaez - granted bail in New York
  • Juan Lazaro (husband of Ms Pelaez) - bail hearing postponed
  • Anna Chapman, Richard and Cynthia Murphy - denied bail in New York
  • Donald Howard Heathfield, Tracey Lee Ann Foley - hearing adjourned until 16 July in Boston
  • Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills, Mikhail Semenko appear in court 2 July
  • Christopher Metsos - missing after being granted bail in Cyprus

However, the judge ordered that she should not be freed before Tuesday, allowing time for a possible appeal by prosecutors.

She will remain under house arrest under a $250,000 (£165,000) bond and will be electronically monitored.

Ms Pelaez is the only one of the 10 suspects held in the US to have been granted bail so far.

A suspected member of the ring who went on the run in Cyprus on Wednesday after skipping bail is believed to have fled the island, the Associated Press news agency quoted the Cypriot justice minister as saying.

Christopher Metsos, suspected of being the group's paymaster, was now unlikely to be caught, said Lucas Luca.

Earlier, the US embassy denied local media reports that Mr Metsos was being held at its compound.

'Femme fatale'

In the UK, a man has described how he was married to one of the suspects, Anna Chapman.

Anna Chapmen from Facebook profile Anna Chapman's British ex-husband has been describing how they met

Alex Chapman was quoted as saying that Ms Chapman had admitted that her father had once been a senior officer in the KGB.

He told the Daily Telegraph newspaper he had met Ms Chapman at a London party in 2002 and married her five months later.

Ms Chapman, 28, has been painted as the femme fatale of the alleged spy ring, with several glamorous photos posted on her page on Facebook.

The US says its investigation into the alleged spy ring has lasted more than a decade.

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