Lebanon spy suspect held in Cyprus admits Hezbollah ties
NICOSIA – Agence France-Presse
AP photoA Lebanese man on trial in Cyprus on charges of spying and planning attacks on Israeli targets has admitted belonging to Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah, media reported on Thursday.
Arrested in the port city of Limassol in July last year, Hossam Taleb Yaacoub faces eight charges, including of conspiracy to commit a crime and of participating in a criminal organisation.
He denied planning any attack when his testimony was read out at the Limassol criminal court on Wednesday, but admitted to being a member of Hezbollah for the past four years, while insisting that he worked solely for the group's political branch, the Cyprus Mail reported.
The defendant, who has dual Lebanese and Swedish nationalities, said he received orders from a masked Hezbollah operative called Ayman and was told to stake out hotels on the holiday island frequented by Israelis, including in Limassol and Ayia Napa.
Cyprus police have refused to comment publicly on the case, describing it as a "sensitive political issue".
Shortly after Yaacoub's arrest, five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver were killed in a bus bombing at an airport in Bulgaria, the deadliest attack on Israelis abroad since 2004, which Israel blamed on Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
At Wednesday's court hearing, Yaacoub was unable to answer questions about a red notebook containing the registration numbers of tourist buses that he had with him at the time of his arrest.
He said he had received weapons and acted as a courier for Hezbollah in Europe, delivering packages whose contents he said he was unaware of, to the French city of Lyon and to Amsterdam, and to Antalya in southwest Turkey.
"I never wanted to hurt anyone, I have no affiliation with terrorism and I am not a member of a terrorist or criminal organisation," Yaacoub said in his testimony.
His trial is set to continue on Thursday.
Officials have said there is no evidence directly linking Yaacoub with the Bulgaria attack, despite remarks in July by Cypriot Justice Minister Loucas Louca who said there were similarities between his behaviour and that of the Burgas bomber.
Cyprus is a popular tourist destination for Israelis, nearly 40,000 of whom visited last year.
The island saw attacks against Israeli interests in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but since then it has been viewed as a relative regional safe haven, and neutral ground for unofficial Middle East peace contacts.
Ties between Israel and Cyprus have strengthened in recent years, with the two countries discussing the joint development of offshore gas discoveries.