* Russian ban on adoptions by Americans took effect on Jan. 1
* Putin's spokesman says despite ban, bilateral deal expires next year
* Kremlin says unclear what it means for pending adoptions
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said on Thursday that a bilateral agreement with United States regulating adoptions will remain in effect for another year despite a new Russian law banning Americans from adopting Russian children.
The spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did not say whether that meant Americans could continue to adopt Russian children until the bilateral agreement, which took effect on Nov. 1, expires next January.
But the announcement could offer a ray of hope to Americans who were in the process of adopting Russian children before Putin approved the ban in retaliation against U.S. legislation intended to punish Russians accused of violating human rights.
The ban took effect on Jan. 1, and Russia said it informed the United States the same day of its intention to terminate the bilateral agreement, which had been sought by Russia as a way to keep tabs on the welfare of Russians adopted by Americans.
But the agreement stipulates that it remains in force until one year after either of the parties informs the other of its intention to terminate it. It was not immediately clear if the bilateral deal, which sets rules for adoptions between the two countries, would conflict with the ban.
"The agreement is still in effect," state-run news agency RIA quoted Peskov as saying.
Peskov confirmed that to Reuters, but said it would be up to legal experts to determine what effect it might have on adoptions that were underway.
"I am not a legal expert," he said.
A prominent Russian defence lawyer, Genri Reznik, told Ekho Moskvy radio station that because an article of the Russian constitution says international treaties take precedence over Russian laws if they contradict one another, adoptions could continue.
"Peskov's announcement means that ... the whole procedure of adoptions of Russian children by American citizens will continue to be applied for another year," he said.
If that is the case, it would please the United States and could ease criticism from opponents of the Kremlin and from child rights activists who have accused the Russian government of making vulnerable children pawns in a political dispute.
If not, it would be likely to stoke such criticism and add to the frustration and dismay of Americans who saw their hopes of adopting Russian children dashed by the ban.
Opponents of Putin are planning a protest march over the law in Moscow on Sunday.
Russian officials say the deaths of 19 Russian-born children adopted by American parents in the past decade motivated the ban, as well as what they perceive as the overly lenient treatment of those parents by U.S. courts and law enforcement.
Critics of the ban say Russian orphanages are woefully overcrowded and that the number of adoptions by Russian families remain modest. Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children since the 1991 Soviet collapse, including 962 in 2011.
After Putin approved the ban, Peskov was quoted as saying that six children whose adoption had been approved by courts would be able to go to the United States, while 46 other children whose adoptions was still underway would not.
The U.S. State Department said it did not know yet how the one-year grace period before the U.S.-Russian agreement ends would affect the cases of American families whose efforts to adopt Russian children were underway before the law was passed.
"We are very hopeful that in the spirit of the original agreement and out of humanitarian concern that we will be able to work through those cases that have been begun," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
She said the State Department was sifting through emails from about 950 American families to establish where they were in the process of seeking to adopt Russian children. She did not give a precise number of how many children might be involved.
Peskov's statement came on a day when some Russian media reported that a boy at a children's home in the Chelyabinsk region had sent Putin a letter asking him to let him go to the United States to be with an American couple.
The boy, Maxim Kargapoltsev, 14, later told journalists that he had not sent Putin a letter - echoing denials by the head of the orphanage and Peskov, who said the Kremlin had not received any communication from him.
But Kargapoltsev said he had been in touch with an American couple from Virginia, the Wallens, for seven years and that they had submitted documents to start an adoption process last year.
"If it's no, then it's no. We'll keep fighting. I will finish studying ... and somehow, I will go to live with them in the United States anyway," he said. "If not now, then later."