Their purpose, according to judicial documents leaked to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, was to kidnap the girl "according to instructions provided by the Onassis Foundation". The price for their work: $100,000 (pounds 59,000). The motive: to strike a definitive blow against the ambitions of Athina's father, Thierry Roussel, who has been embroiled in a series of bitter financial disputes with the Foundation following his divorce from Athina's mother, Christina Onassis, in 1987.
At stake are the $3bn that Athina is estimated to be worth. Christina died in mysterious circumstances in Buenos Aires a year after her divorce, and the Foundation has struggled to maintain control over the money ever since. Mr Roussel, heir to a much smaller French pharmaceutical fortune, has argued that he has a right, as Athina's legal guardian, to manage her estate until she reaches adulthood. He is one of five trustees responsible for her financial future. The other four are Greek.
There have been court cases, accusations of greed and possessiveness, and insults. Mr Roussel has been painted as a money-grubbing playboy determined to deny Athina access to her Greek heritage; he in return has complained of threats to his safety.
The kidnap theory surfaced publicly 10 days ago and was spread around Switzerland and Israel by Mr Roussel and his lawyers. According to the Swiss magistrates, the Israeli team pretended to be tourists on a mountain- biking tour of Switzerland as they prepared to swoop on the girl. Not everyone accepts this version of events, however. The Israeli police looked into the allegations, which centred on a private security firm run by former Shin Bet agents, ISC, but they soon concluded there were no grounds to prosecute. They said they believed the Israelis had been tracking Mr Roussel not with the aim of kidnapping him or his daughter, but merely to gather information that could help the Foundation in its various legal wrangles, and they dropped the case.
The Foundation accused Mr Roussel of mounting a vindictive media campaign. "This is part of his plans to freeze the girl out of the control of the trustees of her fortune even to the point of jeopardising her safety," it said in a statement. "This is both unacceptable and dangerous."
The Swiss investigating magistrate, Jacques Delieutraz, has refused to back down. Last week, he issued seven arrest warrants covering attempted kidnapping, preparatory acts to commit a crime and belonging to a criminal organisation.
On Monday, one of the Israelis, Ronen Balulu, was picked up in Milan and is expected to be extradited to Switzerland. It is not clear what, if anything, he has told the police.
Yesterday, the Onassis Foundation did not want to comment further. It said a formal statement would be issued on Monday.Reuse content