The biggest spy swap since the end of the Cold War was underway on Friday as Russia and the United States prepared to exchange 14 agents.
Spymasters brokered a deal for 10 Russian spies to be deported from the U.S., in return for four agents being released from jail in Russia.
In the first step of the carefully choreographed swap, the 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty on Thursday in a New York court to charges against them and were immediately deported.
Then, around midnight local time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four spies serving jail terms in Russia on charges of spying for the West.
Some of those accused in the U.S. boarded a plane in New York on Thursday night and were expected to fly to Vienna, where people involved in the affair said they would be swapped for the four spies released from Russian jails.
"The United States has agreed to transfer these individuals to the custody of the Russian Federation," the United States Justice Department said.
"In exchange, the Russian Federation has agreed to release four individuals who are incarcerated in Russia for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies," it said.
"Obama fully informed"
Ten people pleaded guilty on Thursday to being agents for Russia while living undercover in the United States as part of a spy swap between the U.S. and Russian governments that revived Cold War-era intrigue.
The suspects agreed in court to be deported to Russia. In turn, Russia agreed to release four people imprisoned for spying Western intelligence agencies, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Such swaps are not unprecedented but were more a fixture of the Cold War, when the United States and the former Soviet Union were sworn enemies competing for world domination.
Both the Kremlin and the administration of President Barack Obama sought to prevent the arrests from affecting relations that had been improving after hitting lows with Russia's 2008 war against Georgia.
Obama, who hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the White House last month, needs Moscow's backing against Iran's nuclear program and Afghanistan invasion. Russia wants U.S. support to gain entry to the World Trade Organization.
Obama "was fully informed" about the swap and endorsed it, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said on the "PBS NewsHour" program, stressing that the case was pursued by intelligence and law enforcement officials.
Some of the suspects were shown on NBC television boarding a Vision Airlines jet at New York's LaGuardia Airport on Thursday night, and footage from Reuters Television later showed the plane taking off.
Neither the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Department of Justice would comment on the reports.
Five of the suspects revealed their real names for the first time publicly and all but one -- Peruvian journalist Vicky Pelaez -- said they were Russian citizens.
The couple known as Richard and Cynthia Murphy said their names were Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, 44 and 39 years old.
Donald Howard Heathfield was actually Andrey Bezrukov, 49, Tracey Lee Ann Foley was Elena Vavilova, 47, and Juan Lazaro was really Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasemkov, 66.
Vladimir Guryev told the court he had been in the United States since the early 1990s.
"I resided here under an assumed name and took direction from the Russian Federation and met with Russian officials and I did not register as a diplomat or foreign agent," he said.
Russian officials promised Pelaez she could go to any country, including her native Peru, with a monthly stipend of $2,000 for life plus visas for her children, her lawyer told the court.
The 10 suspects were sentenced to time already served -- 11 days since their arrests on June 27 -- and had separate charges of money-laundering dropped.
One of them, Anna Chapman, became a staple of the New York tabloid press, which splashed pictures of her across their pages.
Also known as Anya Kushchenko, the 28-year-old was arrested in Manhattan, where she ran a $2 million real estate business.
"No US bargaining chip"
In Moscow, relatives awaited word from a jailed Russian scholar they said was to be sent to Vienna on Thursday in the first stage of the swap.
It was unclear whether Igor Sutyagin, convicted in 2004 of passing secrets to the West, had arrived in Austria as part of what his lawyer said Sutyagin was told would be a exchange for Russian agents arrested in the United States.
Sutyagin, a nuclear expert, was convicted in 2004 of passing classified military information to a British firm that Russian prosecutors said was a front for the CIA.
Three of the prisoners Russia agreed to release were convicted of treason and serving long prison terms, Justice Department prosecutors said. The Russian government agreed to release them and their family members for resettlement.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara denied the investigation was done to gain a "bargaining chip" with Russia.