How an alleged Russian spy eluded capture

Episode recalls cloak-and-dagger days of Cold War espionage
Last Updated 04 July 2010, 17:17 IST

He stayed in modest hotels and dressed for the Mediterranean heat: shorts and untucked shirts. He wore spectacles and a clipped mustache.

Just another foreign tourist on a budget, it seemed, in a waterfront city in Cyprus where foreign tourists on budgets are a summertime fixture.

To American officials, the man identified as Christopher Robert Metsos is the spy who got away, a footloose operative who funneled money to the US-based accomplices, 10 of whom are in custody. Metsos, the FBI says, was a key player in an underworld of coded instructions, false identities, buried banknotes and surreptitious bag swaps.

“If you saw him on the road, you would say, ‘Good morning’ and you would keep walking,” said Michael Papathanasiou, a lawyer who represented Metsos until he jumped bail in Larnaca last week. “There was really nothing strange about him. He was a very normal, usual guy.”

The tale of how this mysterious figure eluded authorities in Cyprus is one of the more intriguing episodes in a spy saga recalling the cloak-and-dagger days of Cold War espionage.

Greek Cypriot officials believe he fled the divided island, and crossing into the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north may have offered an avenue of escape. But the US Embassy said it had not asked Turkish Cypriot authorities for help in tracking the fugitive.

Stolen passport

Metsos was travelling as a tourist on a Canadian passport, and a man in Canada has said the identity was stolen from his dead brother.

On June 17, Metsos, said to be 54 years old, checked into the Atrium Zenon hotel on a busy shopping street one block from the Larnaca waterfront. He paid 40 euros in cash daily for the room. He was accompanied by a “beautiful” woman with short brown hair of about 30 or 35, according to a receptionist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The discreet pair always ate out and sometimes dressed for the beach. In the mornings, Metsos dropped the key at the reception with a polite but curt greeting. The woman waited for him by the lobby door.

On June 29, they checked out early, and Metsos was arrested on an Interpol warrant at the airport while trying to board a flight to Budapest, Hungary with his companion.

Cyprus’ Justice Minister, Loucas Louca, said she boarded the flight because the police had no reason to hold her. Unwitting Cypriot police and court officials initially appeared unaware that Metsos was suspected of espionage.

The drama began for Papathanasiou when he got a call from a Larnaca court. Metsos, wanted in the United States for alleged money laundering and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, needed a lawyer. There was no mention of spying.

“He told me that he had nothing to do with this case. He didn’t understand why he was there,” Papathanasiou said on Saturday. “He was very quiet. He answered my questions. We ordered coffee and water when we were waiting before the court.”

Bail was set at 27,000 euros ($33,000), and an extradition hearing was scheduled for late July and Metsos’ passport was confiscated. After registering at the police station two blocks away, Metsos hung the “Do not disturb” sign outside his door. He failed to report to the police as required on June 30, and hotel staff never saw him leave.

Chapman’s links with royals

Bosses at the British intelligence agency MI5 are investigating an extraordinary link between Anna Chapman, the red-haired beauty accused of spying for Russia, and the royals, reports ANI from London.

Chapman, 28, was fixated with Princes William and Harry and schemed her way into their social circle, it has emerged. She made repeated visits to Boujis, the nightclub haunt of the two young royals with the explicit intention of meeting them.

Now MI5 chiefs are probing whether Chapman posed a security risk. A spokesman for the Princes has kept mum over the issue.

(Published 04 July 2010, 17:14 IST)

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