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‘Assassin sent to kill Russia spy ring traitor’

By Shaun Walker

Russia has identified the double agent who betrayed its US spy ring over the summer and has sent a contract killer to assassinate him, according to a newspaper report published yesterday.

Ten spies, including red-headed Anna Chapman, were rounded up by the FBI in July and sent back to Moscow in exchange for four Russians imprisoned for spying for the West. At the time, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the 10 had been betrayed, and that he knew the name of the traitor.

That name has stayed secret until yesterday. The Russian newspaper Kommersant identified a Colonel Shcherbakov, an employee of the SVR foreign intelligence service, who headed the department responsible for handling sleeper agents in the US, as the double agent.

The paper's sources said that Col Shcherbakov had been working for the Americans for some time and fled to the US shortly before the arrests were made. If true, it would make him one of the most senior defectors since the end of the Cold War.

The paper also quoted a Kremlin official who insinuated that a hit squad had been dispatched to the US to kill Col Shcherbakov. “Don't doubt that a Mercader has already been sent after him,” said the source, referring to Ramón Mercader, a Soviet agent who killed Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in Mexico in 1940. “The fate of such a person is unenviable... living every day in fear of retribution.”

Kommersant said that Russia's intelligence community was still in shock over the summer's events, and that a wide-ranging investigation was under way inside the SVR as to how obvious warning signals about Col Shcherbakov, including the fact that his daughter lived in the US, had been overlooked.

Since the July scandal information about the 10 spies and the chain of events that led up to their arrest has been hard to come by.

The only one of the 10 who has been spotted in public is Ms Chapman, who has participated in a number of candid photoshoots and is apparently now working for a Russian bank. However, she has declined to give any interviews about her life in the US or her intelligence work.

Both sides have been anxious to ensure that the fallout from the spy scandal does not derail the much trumpeted “reset” in relations between Moscow and Washington.

If the Kommersant story is true, then American behaviour throughout the episode is a marked departure from standard practice during the Cold War, when such a high-level defection would have been proudly announced to the world. Instead, there have been no information leaks from Washington on how the arrests came about. The SVR has refused to comment on the truth of the report.

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