Trial of Lebanon spy suspect in Cyprus offers rare look inside Hezbollah
NICOSIA - A Lebanese man who appeared in a Cypriot court on Thursday to face charges of spying and planning attacks on Israeli targets has admitted he belongs to the powerful Hezbollah militant group, reports said.
Arrested in the port city of Limassol in July last year, 24-year-old Hossam Taleb Yaacoub faces eight charges, including conspiracy to commit a crime and participating in a criminal organisation.
Yaacoub denied planning any attack when his testimony was read out at the Limassol criminal court on Wednesday, the Cyprus Mail and CNA news agency reported.
But he admitted to being in Hezbollah for the past four years, while insisting he worked solely for the Shiite group's political branch and that he did not support "fanatic Islam."
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, calling it 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 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, 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.
The court on Thursday set a new hearing date of March 7, after prosecutors requested time to study his testimony, CNA said.
Officials have said there is no evidence directly linking Yaacoub with the Bulgaria attack, despite remarks in July by Justice Minister Loucas Louca who said there were similarities between his behaviour and that of the Burgas bomber.
Cyprus is a popular and nearby 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.