Netanyahu’s office denies Russia found body of legendary spy Eli Cohen in Syria
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Netanyahu’s office denies Russia found body of legendary spy Eli Cohen in Syria

Unconfirmed reports earlier this week said remains of agent uncovered; Moscow strongly rejects claim of involvement

Mossad spy Eli Cohen, executed in Syria in 1965. (Israel GPO)
Mossad spy Eli Cohen, executed in Syria in 1965. (Israel GPO)

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday denied reports that Russia had found the body of legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen in Syria, a day after Moscow strongly rejected the claim of its involvement.

Cohen infiltrated the top echelons of Syria’s leadership in the early 1960s and obtained top-secret intelligence before he was caught and publicly executed in Damascus in 1965.

Citing unconfirmed reports by Syrian opposition groups, Hebrew media reported earlier this week that a Russian delegation took Cohen’s remains out of Syria.

Israeli officials were silent after the reports emerged last weekend.

Israel had previously appealed to Russia for help in finding Cohen.

Russia’s foreign ministry on Wednesday strongly rejected the reports, putting out a statement “resolutely refuting” the claim, which it described as a “provocation.”

It urged the Israeli media to show a more “accurate, professional and honest approach to coverage of such sensitive issues.”

Russia, which is allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad, recently aided Israel in finding and recovering the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel who went missing in the 1982 First Lebanon War.

Baumel’s remains were flown back to Israel earlier this month, after years of efforts to find his body. Israeli officials are still searching for two other soldiers captured and killed in the same battle: Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz.

Cohen’s body has not been returned from Syria, despite decades of appeals by his family. News of the whereabouts of Cohen’s remains are closely followed in Israel, where recovering the bodies of fallen soldiers carries special resonance.

Cohen is also a national icon representing Israel’s daring intelligence-gathering efforts: Information that he obtained in Syria is credited with playing a key role in Israel’s stunning success in the Six Day 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 to Cohen and brought it back to Israel in a special operation. The PMO did not explain how it retrieved the watch, which had been in “enemy hands.”

This July 5, 2018, photo shows the wristwatch that once belonged to Israeli spy Eli Cohen. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Over the years, Cohen’s widow Nadia had 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.”

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