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U.S. exchanges expelled agents with Russia, reports say

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Suspected spy swap begins
  • NEW: Russian agents on flight apparently bound for Moscow, reports say
  • Ten exchanged for Russia's release of four prisoners accused of spying for U.S.
  • White House chief of staff: Agents "caught in the business of spying"
  • Suspects pleaded guilty to failing to register as foreign agents

(CNN) -- A plane carrying 10 Russian agents who were expelled from the United States for intelligence gathering took off from Vienna, Austria on Friday, apparently bound for Moscow, state-run Russian media reported.

A plane carrying four people convicted of spying for the United States took off from Vienna, too, bound for a destination in the West, according to Russia Today, the state television station.

The elaborately choreographed transfer -- reminiscent of a scene from the Cold War -- took about an hour, Russian state media reported.

The 10 pleaded guilty Thursday in the United States for failing to register as foreign agents and were ordered out of the country. They then boarded a chartered flight accompanied by U.S. marshals, a federal law enforcement source said.

They were released in exchange for Russia's release of four Russian prisoners accused of spying for the United States, officials from both countries said Thursday.

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In Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder said none of the 10 had passed classified information and therefore none were charged with espionage.

"They were acting as agents to a foreign power," he told CBS News, referring to the Russians who had been under observation by federal authorities for more than a decade.

All of their children have been repatriated, he said. Attorneys for some of the Russians involved in the case said no children were aboard the Vienna-bound flight.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel told PBS' "NewsHour" that, although the 10 didn't plead guilty to being spies, they "were clearly caught in the business of spying."

In a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials said the agents agreed never to return to the United States without permission from the U.S. government.

Holding them would have conferred no security benefit to the nation, they said.

This "clearly serves the interests of the United States," one official said.

A second official said the four prisoners in Russia were in failing health, a consideration that prompted quick completion of the deal.

Under the plea agreements, the defendants disclosed their true identities in court and forfeited assets attributable to the criminal offenses, the Justice Department said in a news release.

"Defendants Vicky Pelaez, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, who operated in the United States under their true names, admitted that they are agents of the Russian Federation; and Chapman and Semenko admitted they are Russian citizens," the Justice Department said.

Carlos Moreno, an attorney for Pelaez, said his client does not want to take up residence in Russia and would prefer to ultimately live in her native Peru or in Brazil where she has family. Pelaez hopes to continue her work as a journalist, according to Moreno.

Pelaez told the court that Moscow has promised her free housing in Russia and a $2,000 monthly stipend for life, as well as visas for her children to travel to see her. Pelaez and her husband, both naturalized American citizens, were stripped of their citizenship as a part of the plea deal.

Authorities have lost track of an 11th suspect, who was detained in Cyprus, released on bail and then failed to check in with authorities as he had promised to do.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree Friday pardoning the four individuals imprisoned for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies, the Kremlin press service said, according to state-run RIA Novosti.

Though the four Russians were released to the custody of the United States, that does not necessarily mean they would go to the United States, an embassy spokesman said.

"Three of the Russian prisoners were convicted of treason in the form of espionage on behalf of a foreign power and are serving lengthy prison terms," the Justice Department said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood. "The Russian prisoners have all served a number of years in prison and some are in poor health. The Russian government has agreed to release the Russian prisoners and their family members for resettlement."

It added, "Some of the Russian prisoners worked for the Russian military, and/or for various Russian intelligence agencies. Three of the Russian prisoners have been accused by Russia of contacting Western intelligence agencies while they were working for the Russian (or Soviet) government."

The individuals pardoned by Russia are Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin.

All four appealed to the Russian president to free them after admitting their crimes against the Russian state, press secretary Natalia Timakova said.

But in Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied Thursday that Sutyagin had been a spy.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the move was made "in the general context of improving Russian-American relations, and the new dynamic they have been given, in the spirit of basic agreements at the highest level between Moscow and Washington on the strategic character of Russian-American partnership."

CNN's Susan Candiotti, Elise Labott, Jill Dougherty, Eden Pontz, Deborah Feyerick and Raelyn Johnson contributed to this report.