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Cyprus, a familiar stopover in spy lore

LARNACA, Cyprus - The parade of foreigners who trod on Cypriot shores is long and ancient. Kings, sages, crusaders, merchants, tourists. Hittites, Assyrians, Romans, Venetians, Britons, Turks. They came in war and peace. One group, the spies, came in secrecy.

The arrest and escape of an alleged member of a Russian spy ring last week recalls the rich history of espionage in Cyprus, an eastern Mediterranean island whose position at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East made it a hub for clandestine activity.

The end of the Cold War dampened that tradition, and mysterious attacks and arrests linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict subsided on the divided island. In January 2009, however, Cyprus seized a boat suspected of carrying Iranian-supplied weapons bound for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon in violation of a United Nations embargo.

"From the point of view of all participants in the Middle East dispute, Cyprus was always very, very convenient to conduct espionage business and also for the transportation of personnel and goods, legally or illegally," said Ronen Bergman, Israeli author of "The Secret War with Iran."

Cypriot authorities don't know what the alleged paymaster of Russia's "deep cover" operation in the United States was doing in Larnaca, a coastal city that hosts the main international airport and fills with tourists in the summer. Was Christopher Metsos of Canada (Canada says the identity was stolen) on business or pleasure? Or both?

No hard evidence has emerged, though Cypriot authorities plan to look at his confiscated laptop, which is sought by U.S. officials to build their case against the spy ring. There is a strong Russian presence in Cyprus, partly a legacy of the influx of Russian cash after the fall of the Soviet Union that fueled a culture of money laundering. The government has since cracked down on financial wrongdoing.

Escorted by police after his June 29 arrest, Metsos paid bail with money from a bank account in Larnaca, according to Cypriot officials. Ten alleged co-conspirators were detained in the United States and face charges including money laundering and acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government.

Cyprus was a convenient place for money to change hands in the past. Former CIA agent Harold Nicholson, in a U.S. prison for espionage, recruited his 24-year-old son Nathaniel to meet Russian agents in cities around the world from 2006 to 2008 to collect money owed by his former handlers. One of those cities was the Cypriot capital, Nicosia.

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