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Azerbaijani hitman said at center of Iran plot to attack Israelis in Cyprus

Suspect reportedly crossed from Turkish side of island on bike and was casing out Israeli businessmen; was arrested by anti-terror unit while in possession of gun and silencer

Illustrative: A female police officer adjust her mask as she guards at Cyprus' main airport in Larnaca, on June 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
Illustrative: A female police officer adjust her mask as she guards at Cyprus' main airport in Larnaca, on June 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

The would-be hitman in the alleged Iranian terror plot to assassinate one or more Israeli businessmen in Cyprus reportedly spied out potential targets at an office complex where multiple Israelis worked, Channel 12 news reported Monday night.

Over the past week, reports have emerged of an attempted attack on Israeli targets in Cyprus, though reported details of the plot and its targets have varied widely.

Some sources claimed that the foiled attack was an assassination attempt against Israeli billionaire Teddy Sagi linked to his business dealings. But the Israeli government on Monday blamed “Iranian terror” for last week’s planned attack, and said Sagi was not the target. Sagi himself has denied being personally targeted.

According to Channel 12, the hired killer was of Azerbaijani origin and recently arrived in Cyprus on a flight from Russia using a Russian passport. Landing in Larnaca on the Cypriot southern side of the island he is said to have made his way to the Turkish-controlled city of Paralimni in the north where he rented a room and two vehicles.

Citing Cypriot police suspicions, the Israeli network said that the suspect then traveled back to Larnaca, where he attempted to find Israeli businessmen in the Angumi business district, where most of the island’s Israelis work.

He reportedly crossed the Turkish-Cypriot border back and forth a number of times on a bike.

In Larnaca, the assassin reportedly staked out an office complex known to be the workplace of multiple Israelis. The Channel 12 report said he was caught on security cameras snooping around the neighborhood, evidence that was eventually used to catch him.

Days later, he was arrested by Cypriot police from the Anti-Terrorism Unit with a gun and silencer on him that he had reportedly obtained while in Cyprus.

Teddy Sagi. (courtesy)

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the recent attack attempt was a response to Israel’s assassination last year of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Tehran’s nuclear program. And, according to Channel 13 news, it could have been intended as a reaction to a recent Mossad operation to gather information on the fate of Ron Arad, who has been missing in action for more than 30 years.

Kan reported on Monday that the plot was intended as revenge for the November 2020 assassination of Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist. Fakhrizadeh was reportedly taken out in a sophisticated hit led by a Mossad team that deployed a computerized machine gun, required no on-site operatives, took less than a minute, and did not injure anyone else,

The outlet, which did not cite any source for its reporting, said it was unclear if the Israeli targets were selected just because they were Israeli, or because they were thought to have a connection with Israel’s security establishment. Kan added that, according to Israeli estimates, Tehran has also attempted to target the vehicle of an Israeli diplomat in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku as well as the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, India.

The scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, in Tehran, Iran, on November 27, 2020. (Fars News Agency via AP); Inset: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

Also on Monday evening, Channel 13 news suggested that the Cyprus plot could have been intended as revenge for a Mossad operation revealed earlier in the day by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, to gather information about Arad, an Israeli Air Force navigator who was captured in 1986 and was last heard from in 1988.

The TV network did not provide further details on the alleged link between the two matters and how the Mossad operation was connected to Iran. Arad bailed out of his plane during an operation in southern Lebanon in 1986. Israel believes he was captured by the Shiite Amal movement before being handed over to Iran, and moved from Lebanon to Iran and then back again. He is believed to have died in Lebanon.

Speaking at the Knesset on Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz reiterated the government claim that the alleged attack on Sagi was linked to Iranian terror.

“As was publicized recently, an Iranian attack against Israeli targets in Cyprus was foiled,” said Gantz, during a Blue and White faction meeting. “Iran continues to be a global and regional threat, as well as a challenge to Israel, and we will continue to operate in order to protect our citizens and the State of Israel anywhere from any threat.”

According to initial reporting, Sagi, a well-known Israeli-Cypriot businessman who founded the gambling software company Playtech and owns Camden Market in London, was saved at the last minute from the assassination plot after being warned of it by authorities.

But Sagi told Channel 12 news on Monday evening that he was never tipped off or warned and decided to leave Cyprus for unrelated reasons. “The headlines sounded very scary, but it had nothing to do with me,” he said. “I didn’t receive any notification to leave.”

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