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Source denies tale of spy tunnel under Russian embassy

MOSCOW — A Russian counter-intelligence source dismissed reports of a U.S. eavesdropping tunnel under the Russian embassy, saying Thursday they were Washington's invention and aimed at discrediting spy suspect Robert Hanssen.

The New York Times reported the existence of the tunnel last weekend, quoting unnamed officials as saying they believed the operation had been betrayed to the Russians by FBI agent Hanssen, who is charged with selling secrets to Moscow.

RIA news agency quoted a high-ranking source in Russian counter-intelligence as saying the Cold War-era tunnel never existed, and the report was intentionally circulated by U.S. secret services to "burden Hanssen with a serious guilt."

It quoted the unnamed source as saying, "Americans had little" concrete evidence against Hanssen, especially him "being an agent . . . and dug (the tunnel) under him."

The source said rather than digging a special tunnel under the Soviet and then Russian embassy, U.S. secret services used underground telephone cable lines, sewage pipes and the central pillars of the building to spy on the personnel.

RIA said the monitoring system had been discovered and terminated by Moscow some 10 years ago.

Russia has asked Washington for formal clarification of the tunnel reports and said.

A U.S. federal judge on Monday ordered Hanssen, a veteran FBI agent who was arrested on Feb. 18 and faces life in prison or death if convicted, to stay in jail on the grounds that the government's evidence was "exceptionally strong."

Hanssen allegedly sold secrets to Russia and the Soviet Union since 1985, including names of double agents and U.S. electronic surveillance methods. His lawyers have said he is planning to plead not guilty.

Moscow has so far declined any official comment on the affair.

Hanssen's case is one of several espionage cases inflaming relations with Washington in recent months.

U.S. businessman Edmond Pope was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison on charges of seeking information on a underwater torpedo. President Vladimir Putin pardoned him in December.

Russian researcher Igor Sutyagin, who works for the prestigious USA and Canada institute, is on trial in a town near Moscow on charges of passing secrets to Western handlers. He denies the charges.