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Missing Iranian General Was Western Spy Says Latest Report

Ashgari, a retired general who once commanded the Revolutionary Guards, is believed to have gone missing in Turkey's biggest city Istanbul in February shortly after checking into a luxury hotel on a private visit, according to press reports.
by Staff Writers
London (AFP) March 11, 2007
A former Iranian deputy defence minister who disappeared from Turkey last month had been spying on Iran for Western intelligence since 2003, a newspaper reported Sunday, citing Iranian sources. The Sunday Times said Ali Reza Asghari, who once commanded the Revolutionary Guards, was recruited by a foreign intelligence officer during an overseas business trip around four years ago.

"Ali Reza was a wealthy man before 2003," an Iranian source was quoted by the newspaper as saying. "Since 2003, he has become a very wealthy man.

It said he defected via the Syrian capital Damascus at the beginning of last month in an escape arranged by Western intelligence agencies who feared his cover was about to be blown.

On February 7, four days after arriving in Damascus and receiving assurances his family was safe, he took a flight to Istanbul, the newspaper said. In Turkey, he received a new passport and left the country by car, it added.

Quoting unnamed Iranian sources, the newspaper said his defection took months to organise and that at least 10 members of his family, including his two sons, his daughter and several grandchildren, also fled Iran.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing a senior US official, that Ashgari left his country and is cooperating voluntarily with Western intelligence agencies.

It said he was providing information on the Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran's links to the organisation, the unnamed official told the US newspaper. But he reportedly had no details about Iran's nuclear programme.

Asghari, a deputy defense minister under the previous government of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, disappeared after checking into a hotel in Istanbul on a private visit in February.

Iran's foreign minister said on Monday that Tehran had sent a team of diplomats to look into the case.

The official's disappearance, which has fueled intense speculation in Israeli and Turkish media that he may have defected, came as the United States accused Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq by allegedly arming Shiite militants.

It also comes as Iran defies a United Nations demand that it halt uranium enrichment, which the US and other major powers suspect Tehran is pursuing in the development of nuclear weapons. The Islamic Republic insists its nuclear programme is for power generation.

earlier related report
Speculation rife over fate of missing Iranian ex-official
Ankara (AFP) March 11 - The fate of a former Iranian government official who disappeared in Turkey last month continues to fuel global media speculation as Ankara hunts for a man with alleged links to the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and information on Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The mysterious case of Ali Reza Ashgari, a former deputy defence minister, has come to resemble a top-notch spy novel amid Iranian accusations that he was kidnapped by Western spy agencies and media claims that he had voluntarily defected.

Ashgari, a retired general who once commanded the Revolutionary Guards, is believed to have gone missing in Turkey's biggest city Istanbul in February shortly after checking into a luxury hotel on a private visit, according to press reports.

Turkish officials have so far been reluctant to comment on the Iranian's mysterious disappearance except to say a detailed investigation was underway.

"Our intelligence agency, our security forces are carrying out a very detailed, comprehensive investigation into the matter. We hope to gather all the information on his fate," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said here Wednesday.

The minister, however, underlined that the movements of Ashgari had not been followed by Turkish intelligence agencies and that Tehran had notified Ankara of his disappearance ten days after he came to Turkey on a tourist visa.

Iran on Tuesday charged that Ashgari may have been kidnapped by Western secret services amid Israeli and Turkish press reports that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Israel's Mossad spy agency snatched or helped the Iranian defect.

But the Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed senior US official, that Ashgari had left his country and was voluntarily cooperating with Western intelligence agencies with information on the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and Iran's links to the group.

The official would not say where Asghari was at the moment or who was questioning him, but made clear that the information Asghari was "offering is fully available to US intelligence," the Post reported on its website.

Former officers with Mossad said Wednesday that Asghari had been instrumental in the founding of Hezbollah in the 1980s.

According to the Israeli media, Ashgari was Iran's liaison with Hezbollah when he was in the Revolutionary Guards and that he was in charge of "special missions" carried out by the Guards in Lebanon in 1986.

Israeli media claims that Ashgari had access to information on Iran's controversial nuclear programme have been denied by Iranian officials and the US official cited by the Washington Post said the Iranian was not being questioned on that matter.

The whereabouts of Ashgari or the circumstances of his alleged defection also remain shrouded in mystery.

Citing an "Iranian military source," the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat said Wednesday that Asghari "is currently in a northern European country in American custody."

"His interrogation is under way ahead of a transfer to the United States," the paper quoted the unnamed source as saying.

Another US official, who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, denied an Israeli press report that Asghari was in the United States.

The official suggested that Asghari's disappearance was orchestrated by the Israelis.

An unnamed Iranian official told the Post that Iranian intelligence was uncertain of Asghari's whereabouts but that he may have been offered money, probably by Israel, to leave the country.

The official said Asghari was thought to be in Europe. "He has been out of the loop for four or five years now," the official told the newspaper.

But the Israeli government has denied any connection to Asghari's disappearance. "To my knowledge, Israel is not involved in any way in this disappearance," Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, was quoted as saying.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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