Mystery shrouds two Israeli men arrested on spy charges in Cyprus

JERUSALEM — Even though Cyprus asserts the two Israelis arrested Saturday on spy charges weren't working for Israel, no one is denying that the pair may be Mossad agents — or even that they could be working for Turkey.

A flurry of diplomatic activity has been under way this week between Nicosia and Jerusalem, with both sides saying they want the affair to end quietly.

"There is a lot of goodwill to bring an end to this quickly. I am sorry that this hit the press," said Cyprus' ambassador to Israel, Euripides Evriviades.

The two Israelis, Udi Hargov, 37, and Yigal Damary, 49, were arrested at dawn Saturday on suspicion of spying on a military base near the remote coastal village of Ziyi.

According to reports from Cyprus, local villagers alerted police because of the men's suspicious behavior. Investigators said they found sophisticated listening equipment and radio scanners tuned to police radio frequencies in their hotel room. The suspects denied the equipment was theirs, police said.

A private television station in Cyprus said the scanner found in the suspects' possession was also tuned in to ship frequencies in the area. Police would not confirm the report.

The two suspects have been placed in custody for eight days.

Reports from Cyprus said they had been visited by an attorney appointed for them by the Israeli Embassy in Nicosia. Sources close to the case said the two deny all involvement in espionage.

Asked by Israel's Channel 2 whether the two men worked for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "Every Israeli citizen is important to us. We'll clarify this, and we'll bring them home."

Other officials in Jerusalem declined to comment, besides confirming that the two men are Israelis and are to be visited by an embassy official in Nicosia.

Evriviades did not rule out the possibility that the men were working for another government.

"The fact that they were Israelis does not mean that they were working for the Israeli government," he said. "The possibility exists that they were working for Turkey."

Israeli diplomatic sources admitted that it could be damaging if it turned out that the alleged spies were working for the Turks.

On Wednesday, however, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman denied rumors that the two men may have been spying for Turkey.

Cyprus is extremely sensitive to foreigners observing its military activities, particularly the exact deployment date of sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that Cyprus has ordered from Russia.

Turkey, which captured one-third of the island in a 1974 invasion, has vowed to prevent their deployment, since it claims the missiles will threaten its air space.

Cyprus is fearful of the military alliance between Turkey and Israel, but is also keen on maintaining good relations with Jerusalem.

The arrest of the alleged spies came just days after a historic visit to Cyprus by Israeli President Ezer Weizman. His visit was aimed at enhancing Israel's support for the island, but also drew attention to Israel's strong defense ties with Turkey, which Israel insists are not directed at any third party.

During Weizman's visit, the Cypriot government spokesman praised the cooperation between the security forces of both countries, saying it was one reason why the visit had gone so smoothly.

Diplomatic sources said Weizman is furious over the arrests, saying all the political points scored by him in Cyprus are "going down the drain."

This is not the first time this year that Israel has been embarrassed by a "security mishap" in Cyprus.

In April, two Israeli planes were caught flying over a planned missile base in the northwest of the island. At the time, Cyprus protested the violation of its air space. The incident led to ongoing fears that Israel is providing intelligence material on the surface-to-air missiles ordered from Russia to the Turks.