Netanyahu canceled Albania visit due to possible plot to target him – reports

PM, Trump praise Tirana for expelling Iranian diplomats, reportedly over plan to attack Israeli national soccer team; Tehran fumes

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses for a picture with his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, ahead of a meeting in Jerusalem in 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses for a picture with his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, ahead of a meeting in Jerusalem in 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation last month of a visit to Albania could have been related to a possible plot against him, Albanian media reported Thursday, in the aftermath of the expulsion of the Iranian ambassador and another diplomat from the country, reportedly over a plot to target the Israeli national soccer team.

Another reason cited in local media for Netanyahu canceling his appearance at a November 1 international summit in Tirana was Albania’s refusal at the time to expel the Iranian diplomats despite US pressure.

At the time, reports linked the cancellation of the trip to the death of minister David Azoulay (Shas) and several other European leaders canceling their participation in the summit.

On Thursday evening, Netanyahu’s office praised his Albanian counterpart for his decision to expel the Iranian diplomats.

“Important news from Albania today. The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, expelled the Iranian ambassador from Tirana. By doing so, Prime Minister Rama has sent a clear message to the Iranian radical Islamic regime – that plotting terror attacks has a cost,” the Prime Minister’s Office posted on Twitter.

A subsequent tweet added, “Israel stands with Albania as it stands with every country that sees the Iranian regime for what it is: the greatest threat to world peace and security.”

In this photo from December 18, 2018, US President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion about school safety at the White House. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

US President Donald Trump, in a letter to Rama, dated December 14, thanked Rama for his “steadfast efforts to stand up to Iran and to counter its destabilizing activities and efforts to silence dissidents around the globe.”

The US Embassy in Tirana published the letter on its Facebook page on Thursday.

Albania’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said the two diplomats were expelled for “violating their diplomatic status” following talks with other countries, including Israel.

Trump’s letter said the expulsion “exemplifies our joint efforts to show the Iranian government that its terrorist activities in Europe and around the world will have severe consequences.”

Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the expulsions. The official IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi as saying that “Albania has become an unintentional victim of the United States, Israel and some terrorist groups.”

Bahram Ghasemi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, gives an interview with AFP in the capital Tehran on October 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

The spokesman said the US and Israel are working to destroy relations between Iran and European countries, and that Albania should not allow others to dictate its relations with Tehran.

Shahin Gobadi of Iran’s National Council of Resistance based in Paris, France, also hailed Albania’s expulsion of the two diplomats as “a very necessary and courageous act.”

Albania is home to 2,500 members of the Iranian opposition group in exile Mujahedin-e Khalk, who moved from Iraq.

“The clerical regime’s embassies in Europe are centers of terrorist acts against the dissidents,” Gobadi said.

He said two plots of the Iranian regime were foiled, one in Albania — an attempt to bomb the Nowruz (Iranian New Year) celebration in March — and the other in a gathering of Iranians in Paris in June, and “the regime’s embassies and diplomats played a major role in both of these foiled terror plots.”

Private Top Channel television reported that the Iranians were suspected of illegal activities related to a World Cup qualifying match between Albania and Israel two years ago.

Albania’s Elseid Hysaj (R) vies with Israel’s Ben Sahar during the 2018 World Cup group G qualifying football match between Albania and Israel, in Elbasan on November 12, 2016. (AFP/Gent Shkullaku)

About 20 people were arrested in Albania and Kosovo following that match, which was threatened with an alleged terrorist attack.

Albanian officials would not confirm that report.

The planned attack in November 2016 was said to have been coordinated by two Albanians in Syria fighting with the Islamic State terror group.

The World Cup qualifier was originally due to take place in the northern town of Shkodra. The match eventually took place in Elbasan, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the Albanian capital Tirana, under a massive security presence.

It’s unclear what connection Iran, which is traditionally seen as an enemy of the Islamic State, may have had to the attack plot.

In May, a Kosovo court sentenced eight Albanians to jail over the foiled attack and fined another. Police found explosive devices, weapons, electronic equipment and extremist religious literature at their homes.

In August 2017, the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria said it had killed a plotter of the thwarted soccer game attack.

There has been no comment from Israeli officials on those reports.

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