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Russia releases American held for spying

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But espionage charges aren't dropped

December 6, 1997
Web posted at: 10:28 p.m. EST (0328 GMT)

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (CNN) -- A U.S. telecommunications engineer accused by Russia of spying was released from custody without bail Saturday, but Russians officials have refused to drop espionage charges lodged against him.

Richard Bliss, 29, was detained November 25 in the Black Sea city of Rostov-on-Don. Russia formally charged Bliss Friday with espionage -- the first such case against an American since the end of the Cold War.

His release followed protests from the United States -- and warnings that his continued detention could damage economic relations between the two countries.

"This is a very positive move, and we are very pleased by it," said White House spokesman Eric Rubin. "As we've said all along, we saw no grounds for prosecution."

James Rubin, a spokesman for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said she "welcomes" the decision to release Bliss. However, he said Bliss would be required to stay in Russia while the investigation continues.

Bliss was installing cellular system

Bliss is an employee of San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., and the company said he was in Russia making land surveys needed for installation of a cellular phone system. Qualcomm has a contract with a Russian firm, Elektrosvyaz, to set up a cellular system in Rostov-on-Don, a major city near the Black Sea.

Though Russian authorities had originally indicated that Bliss's bail would be set at $5 million -- which Qualcomm had said it would be willing to pay -- he was released without bail. Qualcomm assured Russian officials in a written statement that Bliss would remain in Russia until the matter was resolved.

Russian intelligence agents accused Bliss of surveying unspecified "sensitive" sites using hand-held satellite receivers brought into Russia illegally. Bliss and Qualcomm have insisted that his activities were simply part of his job and did not involve espionage.

Officials of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, said Bliss failed to list the device he was using to conduct surveys, known as a global positioning system, on his customs declaration when he entered Russia.

A statement from the FSB said Bliss admitted that he had not declared the device but denied that he was involved in espionage.

"These explanations (from Bliss) were contradicted by other materials which the investigative officers have," the statement said.

Qualcomm officials have assured the U.S. government that they had the appropriate licenses for the equipment Bliss was using.

U.S. warns case could damage relations

U.S. officials warned Russia on Friday that continued pursuit of the case could damage Russian-American relations at a time when the Russians need more U.S. economic aid.

Dialogue was conducted at the highest levels, with U.S. Vice President Al Gore calling Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin Friday to press for Bliss' release.

"Interfering with those pursuing legitimate commercial activities, who are employed by enterprises doing legitimate business in Russia, sends a very bad signal and could put a chilling effect on commercial relations that are important to future economic prosperity in Russia," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

U.S. officials told CNN they feared that if Russia is perceived as mistreating U.S. workers, it would have a chilling effect on investments in Russia by American businesses.

Also, members of Congress, already angry about Russian arms deals with Iran, could pull the plug on additional economic aid, including pledges to pay for dismantling Russia's leftover nuclear weapons.

Correspondents Ralph Begleiter and Jill Dougherty and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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