Israeli officials were silent on Sunday night amid unconfirmed reports by Syrian opposition groups that a Russian team had exhumed the remains of legendary Mossad spy Eli Cohen and taken his body out of the country.
The reports that the body of the so-called “our man in Damascus” could be coming home 54 years after he was executed, come just two weeks after Russia helped return the body of Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel who went missing in the 1982 First Lebanon War, ending a 37-year search.
Israel refused to respond to the reports on Cohen, which were largely based on rumors on social media. Israeli cabinet ministers contacted by Channel 12 news said they had no knowledge of any such operation to return Cohen’s remains.
Channel 12 said the Syrian opposition reports were not reliable.
Cohen’s body has not been returned from Syria, despite decades of appeals by his family. Israel recently asked for Russia’s help in that effort, so far to no avail.
Cohen infiltrated the top levels of Syria’s political leadership in the years before the 1967 Six Day War, and information he obtained is credited with playing a key role in Israel’s stunning success in that war.
Cohen was put on trial and executed by the Syrian government for espionage on May 18, 1965, after he successfully breached the Syrian government under the alias Kamel Amin Thaabet for four years.
Last year the Mossad spy agency recovered a wristwatch belonging Cohen and brought it back to Israel in a special operation. The Prime Minister’s Office did not explain how it retrieved the watch, which had been in “enemy hands.”
Mossad chief Yossi Cohen presented the watch to Eli Cohen’s family at a ceremony marking the anniversary of his death.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the intelligence service for the operation.
“I commend the fighters of the Mossad for the determined and courageous operation, the sole objective of which was to return to Israel a memento from a great fighter who greatly contributed to the security of the state,” he said.
Nadia Cohen, Eli Cohen’s widow said it was very emotional for her to have the watch back.
“It was very emotional to be told of this. It was something that was placed on Eli’s skin,” she said. “God willing, perhaps his body will also be returned to Israel.”
Over the years, Nadia Cohen unsuccessfully made several appeals to the Syrian government to release her late husband’s remains. In 2008, a former bureau chief of late Syrian leader Hafez Assad claimed that no one knew where Cohen was buried.
“The grave was moved after a day or two,” Monjer Motsley said in an interview. “We were scared that Israel would send forces to take away the body.
“It is difficult to find Cohen’s bones,” he added. “Assad promised to return Cohen’s bones, but when he asked about it security officials told him: ‘Sir, we don’t know where the grave is,’ so he couldn’t promise.”
Last March, Nadia Cohen told Israel Radio that the late Mossad chief Meir Dagan had sought the assistance of the United States as late as 2011, after the Syrian civil war broke out, to help bring his remains to Israel for burial.