VILNIUS/OSLO (Reuters) - Russia freed two Lithuanians and a Norwegian on Friday in return for two Russian spies held in Lithuania, in a Cold War-style spy swap that brought several high profile espionage cases to a close.
The Norwegian, Frode Berg, a retired border guard, was arrested in Moscow in 2017 and convicted of gathering intelligence on behalf of Norway. He pleaded not guilty.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told a news conference she had spoken with Berg by telephone and he would come home as soon as “practically possible”.
“We are happy that Frode Berg is coming back home to Norway as a free man,” she added.
Berg’s lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, told Norwegian newspaper VG that Berg was undergoing a medical examination, and needed some peace before travelling back to Norway.
It was not immediately clear when Berg could fly back from Lithuania, which helped to arrange the spy swap that took place at midday on Friday at a Lithuanian border post with Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave.
Solberg told a news conference that the actions of Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and his country’s parliament showed “a spirit of a great ally and true friend, and we will remain grateful”.
Norway has not promised any rewards to Lithuania in exchange, she added.
Both Norway and Lithuania are NATO member states, and Norway has its soldiers taking part in NATO’s rotating exercises in the Baltic state, concerned about Russia’s aggressiveness.
Moscow says it has no intention of invading the Baltics or Poland and accuses NATO of destabilising Europe by moving troops closer to Russia’s borders.
News about Berg’s release prompted celebrations in his hometown Kirkenes, in Arctic Norway.
“We have been waiting for this for two years now,” Oeystein Hansen, a member of a support group, told Reuters by phone. “It is very good for all the parties, the local community, the family, the Norwegian nation.”
“We are so happy right now,” Berg’s daughter, Christina Berg, who was waiting for her father’s return in Oslo, told Reuters by text message.
One of the two freed Russians, Nikolai Filipchenko, was sentenced in Lithuania in 2017 to 10 years in jail for spying.
Lithuanian media reported that Filipchenko held the rank of lieutenant colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and tried to recruit the Lithuanian president’s bodyguards to bug the president’s office.
Another freed Russian, Sergej Moisejenko, was sentenced in 2017 to 10-1/2 years for spying and illegal possession of weapons, the prosecutor’s office said.
According to Lithuanian media reports, he tried to gather information about Lithuanian armed forces and NATO’s air police mission in Lithuania.
Russia freed two Lithuanians, Jevgenij Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis, who were sentenced in Russia in 2016 to 13 and 12 years in prison respectively for spying.
Mataitis, who also holds Russian citizenship, was passing secret military information while he served as a captain in the Russian armed forces, Russian news agency TASS has said.
Both freed Lithuanians were to be reunited with their families on Friday, Lithuanian officials said.
Additional reporting by Tom Balfmorth in Moscow, Nerijus Adomaitis and Lefteris Karagiannopoulos in Oslo; Writing by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Editing by Peter Graff and Alex Richardson