Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has pardoned four convicted foreign spies, in exchange for the return of 10 people accused of conducting espionage for his country in the United States.

The foursome admitted their guilt in a signed statement in order to secure their release from prison, a senior White House official told The Associated Press.

Some of the released prisoners have health problems, the official said, and were permitted to leave Russia with their families.

Meanwhile, 10 people accused of being Russian spies in the U.S. have been ordered deported from that country, in what is being called the largest exchange of spies between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War.

U.S. Federal Judge Kimba Wood ordered the deportations Thursday afternoon, after the 10 defendants pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country. They were expected to be escorted from the country later on Thursday.

The group had been spying on the United States for more than a decade before being taken into custody by U.S. authorities. The FBI made the arrests late last month, alleging that the 10 had been living double lives, secretly working for Moscow for years to collect information about business, scientific and political affairs.

Another suspect in the U.S. spy case, Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus but was granted bail and promptly vanished. Metsos reportedly assumed the identity of a Canadian boy, who died at age 5, to secure a passport for his escape.

U.S. investigators said that one suspect also adopted the identity of a deceased Canadian infant named Donald Heathfield.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa has declined to comment on the cases.

One of the Russian prisoners to be released, Igor Sutyagin, was reportedly removed from prison and flown to Vienna earlier on Thursday.

Sutyagin is an arms control researcher serving a 14-year sentence for allegedly spying for the Americans. In Moscow, his family said he was on a list of 11 Russian prisoners who could be set free in the swap.

Earlier, a number of armoured vehicles were seen driving in and out of the prison where Sutyagin was housed, believed to be the home of a number of other convicted spies.

Sutyagin previously worked as an arms control and military analyst at the U.S.A. and Canada Institute in Moscow. He was arrested in 1999 and convicted five years later of passing nuclear secrets to a British company that Russian investigators say is linked to the CIA.

International attention

The spy case made headlines around the world, with the arrests coming days after Moscow President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama had a high-profile burger lunch in Washington and later attended the G8 and G20 meetings in Ontario.

Yesterday, the U.S. brought half of the captured spy suspects to New York, joining the other five who were already behind bars there. The suspected spies will have to plead guilty to charges if they are to be deported.

High-level negotiations reportedly took place at the Washington home of the Russian ambassador.

Martin Rudner, the director of Carleton University's Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, said it is less trouble for both sides to engineer a swap, rather than fight the issues in court.

A swap would keep American authorities from having to disclose in court how they uncovered the spy ring, for example. The Americans would also not want to have to reveal the type of information they had been feeding to the Russian spy-ring, while they watched it over much of the past decade.

Moscow has also traditionally favoured bringing its agents home when possible.

"The Russians, like the Americans, have a tendency to want to bring their people home," former CIA Russian analyst Mark Stout told ABC News.

During the Cold War, dozens of similar swaps took place -- the last example involving the U.S. and Russia took place on the Glienecke Bridge between East and West Berlin.

With files from The Associated Press and CTV's Joy Malbon