Russia denies recovering remains of spy Eli Cohen from Syria

Moscow chides Israeli media, calls reports that it found remains of legendary agent a ‘provocation’

This undated photo shows Israeli spy Eli Cohen, in Syria, wearing a wristwatch recovered by the Mossad in 2018. (Prime Minister's Office)
This undated photo shows Israeli spy Eli Cohen, in Syria, wearing a wristwatch recovered by the Mossad in 2018. (Prime Minister's Office)

MOSCOW — Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday strongly rejected Israeli media reports claiming that Russian officials have taken the remains of legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen out of Syria, where he was executed more than five decades ago.

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 1965.

Hebrew media reported earlier this week that a Russian delegation took Cohen’s remains out of Syria. Israel had previously appealed to Russia for help finding Cohen.

The Russian Foreign Ministry put 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.”

Israeli officials had been silent after the unconfirmed reports by Syrian opposition groups emerged last weekend that a Russian team had exhumed the remains of the Mossad spy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov at an official ceremony, April 4, 2019, at which Israel received the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel’s personal effects. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Russia, which is allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad, 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.

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

News of the possible remain’s of Cohen’s whereabouts are closely followed in Israel, where recovering the bodies of fallen soldiers carries added resonance.

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 to 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.”

Screenshot from footage showing Israeli spy Eli Cohen placed in a coffin after his execution by hanging in Damascus, Syria on May 18, 1965.

Over the years, Cohen’s widow Nadia has 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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