A man on trial in Cyprus admitted on Wednesday to being a member of the Hizbullah terror group, acting as a courier for the group inside the European Union and staking out locations Israelis would frequent, the New York Times reported.
According to the report, the man admitted to staking out a parking lot behind a Limassol hospital and a hotel called the Golden Arches.
The defendant, Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, 24, described how he would be picked up in a van to meet with his handler, whom he knew only as Ayman, and used code words to confirm his identity. “I never saw the face of Ayman because he was always wearing a mask,” Yaacoub said, according to the New York Times.
In written testimony read out loud in Greek by his interpreter, the man said that he had not taken part in a plot to target Israeli tourists visiting Cyprus, as prosecutors charge.
“Even if they asked me to participate in a terrorist action I would refuse. I could never do that,” Yaacoub was quoted as having said. “I’m only trained to defend Lebanon.”
He was arrested in July with the license plates of buses ferrying Israelis written in a small red notebook, the New York Times reported. He said that he wrote them down because one of the license numbers, LAA-505, reminded him of a Lamborghini sports car, while the other, KWK-663, reminded him of a Kawasaki motorcycle.
The Cypriot police arrested Yaacoub on July 7. Less than two weeks later, a busload of Israelis was blown up in Burgas on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, killing five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver. This month, Bulgarian officials announced that evidence pointed to Hizbullah as being behind the attack.
While the trial here has received little public attention in Cyprus, the stakes are high both for Hizbullah and the European Union, the Times noted, which has thus far resisted following Washington’s lead and declaring Hizbullah a terrorist organization.
Experts say that a conviction in Cyprus could put even more pressure on the bloc for a designation.
Officials in Cyprus have tried to keep the case as low-key as possible, the report indicated, declining in most instances to comment on it or to release documents.
The prosecution and the defense have both declined to comment before a verdict is reached, sometime in March. But a preliminary ruling by the three-judge panel last week found that the prosecutor had provided enough evidence to proceed on all eight counts, including four charges of conspiracy to commit a felony, two charges for participating in a criminal organization, one for participating in the preparation of a crime and a charge for covering it up.
Yaacoub, who has both Swedish and Lebanese passports, said that he had been a member of Hizbullah since 2007, and worked for the group for four years. He also owned a trading company in Lebanon. He had visited Cyprus in 2008 but first came for business in December 2011. Though he traded in shoes, clothing and wedding goods, he was interested in branching out into importing juice.
It was unclear from his testimony exactly how he got involved with the man he called Ayman. He said that he had been on “previous missions with Hizbullah,” in Antalya, on Turkey’s southwest coast; Lyon, France; and Amsterdam.
On June 26, 2012, he traveled to Sweden to renew his passport there. He returned to Cyprus via Heathrow Airport. Ayman asked him to observe two locations, the parking lot and the hotel. He was also supposed to acquire two SIM cards for cellphones and locate Internet cafes in Limassol and the Cypriot capital, Nicosia. Ayman also asked him to locate restaurants that served kosher food, but Yaacoub said he could not find any.
He explained multiple trips to the airport at Larnaca, which authorities said were for surveillance, as a result of a rental car with faulty air-conditioning that had to be returned. “I have no accomplices and I am not hiding weapons,” he said, according to the New York Times.