Israeli men in Cypriot port were not spies, court decides

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SO THE Israeli Mossad spies in Cyprus were not spies after all.

They were, it transpired yesterday, merely "approaching" a military area with scanning equipment, computers, tape recorders, military maps and cellular telephones upon which they regularly dialled a number for Israeli intelligence in Tel Aviv.

Three years was what Udi Hargov and Igal Damary received from the Larnaca District Court - which, with good conduct, means they will be back in Israel in a year or two.

Officially, of course, it simply could not be proved that they were interested in the imminent arrival (since cancelled) of Cyprus' brand-new ground- to-air missiles, to which the Turks objected - Turkey being Israel's latest ally in the Middle East.

But the Cypriot President, Glafcos Clerides, and his Foreign Minister, Ioannis Kasoulidhis, have since admitted that they had been "reassured" by Israel, unnamed US senators and an equally anonymous European Union minister that the two men had not been "acting against Cyprus".

So what were they doing in the picturesque Cypriot fishing village of Zigi at the moment the Cypriot National Guard just happened to be unloading a new shipment of tanks and other military equipment last year?

According to the Israelis, they were acting against a threat of "terrorism", the all-purpose definition of anything that threatens Israel, and in no way intending to harm the security of an island which has been divided for a quarter of a century between Greek Cypriots and Israel's new ally, Turkey.

Judge George Aresti stated at Larnaca yesterday that "no explanation has been given as to why the two accused approached a prohibited area when such a delicate security operation was under way".

The Cypriot authorities had been maintaining the "utmost secrecy", he said, about the military activity taking place at the commando base at Vasilikos, close to Zigi.

No mention was made in the Larnaca court - a bleak two-storey building near the international airport - about two meetings that took place during the trial between the Cypriot attorney general, Alecos Markides, and his Israeli opposite number, Elyakin Rubinstein.

The Greek Cypriot press quickly recalled the case of a Cypriot journalist sentenced to five years in prison in Israel more than two decades ago for alleged "spying"; he had been taking photographs in the port of Haifa.

The Cypriot government, it seems, has agreed to forgive - and more or less forget - the potential danger to its island state by the two Mossad men almost as quickly as it decided, under European and American pressure, to abandon its plan to deploy anti-aircraft missiles. Mr Markides denied at a press conference that any "pressure" had been brought on Cyprus to drop the case against the Israelis.

Hargov and Damary could have received 10 years in prison for espionage if they had been convicted of the initial charges of spying.

The police had caught the two men after a local Greek Cypriot cafe proprietor became suspicious because they never greeted him after renting a neighbouring apartment.

Quite apart from mysterious American senators, a serious appreciation of Greek food, it seems, might have saved both of the men the trouble of a prison sentence.