WASHINGTON (AFP) - The FBI is investigating a Russian diplomat who runs a cultural exchange programme out of Washington for possibly recruiting young Americans as spies, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are questioning Americans who took part in the Rossotrudnichestvo exchange programme led by Yury Zaytsev, who is also the director of the
Russian Center for Science and Culture in Washington, the Post wrote, citing unnamed law enforcement officials.
Mr Zaystev is under investigation for allegedly cultivating the American participants as future intelligence "assets", officials told the Post.
The exchange programme paid for all the expenses of the Americans taking part, including meals, travel, visa fees and lodging, and the trips sometimes included stays in luxury hotels and meetings with Russian government officials, the report said.
Mr Zaystev allegedly created files on some of the participants for use in targeting possible future spies but officials did not say whether there was proof he successfully recruited any of the Americans, according to the Post.
Mr Zaytsev has diplomatic immunity and the US government could decide to revoke his immunity, forcing him to return to Russia, officials told the Post.
The Russian foreign ministry expressed outrage over the report and denounced the allegations as "fabrications" which "have nothing to do with reality".
"We believe that the above-mentioned reports and US authorities' actions are of unfriendly nature and aimed at aggravating the situation in the sphere of the development of international humanitarian cooperation," it said in a statement.
"It is necessary for the US authorities to unambiguously and publicly dissociate themselves from the malicious attempts to cast a shadow on the work of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Washington," it added.
About 130 Americans had visited Russia under the exchange programme, the Post said.
According to the Russian foreign ministry, the exchange programme had more than 1,000 people from over 50 countries, including the United States, visit Russia over the past three years.
The investigation was first reported by Mother Jones magazine.