Report: Tehran set up Russian-Israeli’s abduction in Iraq to secure Iranian’s release

London daily Asharq Al-Awsat says Islamic Republic looking to swap Elizabeth Tsurkov, possibly for prisoner Israel says is Revolutionary Guard operative

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Elizabeth Tsurkov in an undated photo (social media; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Elizabeth Tsurkov in an undated photo (social media; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The kidnapping of Russian-Israeli researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov was carried out to pressure Israel to release an Iranian operative held by Israel, according to Asharq Al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic daily.

Citing Iraqi government sources and members of an umbrella organization for Shiite militias, the newspaper reported that the Iranian in question could be Yousef Shahbazi Abbasalilo, whom Israel announced in June it had nabbed on Iranian soil for planning attacks on Israeli targets in Cyprus.

Israel has not revealed when it took Shahbazi Abbasalilo, an alleged Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operative, and whether it was before Tsurkov was kidnapped.

Some sources told the outlet that talks were being mediated by Russia, “which may result in the release of Tsurkov in the coming days.”

Asharq Al-Awsat also said it had received conflicting reports about her whereabouts, with some sources saying she was being held in Iraq by the pro-Iranian militia Kataeb Hezbollah, and others indicating she had been moved to Iran.

The report could not be independently verified.

Alleged Iranian terror operative Yousef Shahbazi Abbasalilo, in a photo released by the Mossad spy agency on June 29, 2023. (Courtesy)

Tsurkov, a doctoral student at Princeton University and fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, has been missing in Iraq for more than three months.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Wednesday accused Iraq’s Kataeb Hezbollah of holding her, but the pro-Iran armed faction has implied it was not involved in her disappearance. Kataeb Hezbollah is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, dozens of mostly Shiite militias that were integrated into Iraqi security forces in recent years.

Asked about her disappearance on television late Thursday, government spokesman Bassem al-Awadi said “the Iraqi government is indeed conducting an official investigation.”

“Given the level of the case, its intricacies, there will be no official statement regarding this matter until the Iraqi government completes its official investigation and reaches conclusions,” he said. “After that, there will be statements or announcements on official stances,” he told Al-Ahd station, which is close to the PMF.

Tsurkov had arrived in Baghdad “at the beginning of December 2022,” a Western diplomat in Iraq said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The academic has not been active on Twitter, where she has almost 80,000 followers and describes herself as “passionate about human rights,” since March 21.

A screen grab from footage aired by Iraq’s Alrabiaa TV that is said to show abducted Israeli-Russian researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov in a Baghdad cafe before her disappearance. (Screenshot from Twitter/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

An Iraqi intelligence source said Tsurkov was kidnapped in Baghdad “at the beginning of Ramadan,” the Muslim fasting month which this year commenced on March 23.

Last Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office said Tsurkov “is still alive and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being.”

In a statement on Thursday evening, Kataeb Hezbollah said it was doing everything it could to uncover the fate of the “Zionist hostage or hostages” in the country.

AFP contributed to this report. 

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