Sat, Mar 05, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Ex-FBI agent alive years after vanishing

MYSTERY:Four years after retired FBI agent Robert Levinson vanished in Iran, US officials have received proof that he is alive, but they are not saying what it is

AP, WASHINGTON

In an instant, the disappearance of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson in Iran went from a cold case to something very hot.

After nearly four years without word about what happened to Levinson, his family received proof late last year that the father of seven was alive. It was a dramatic development that sharply intensified diplomatic efforts to bring him home.

Until then, there had never been any evidence about whether Levinson was alive or dead since he disappeared in March 2007 from the Iranian island of Kish. It remains unclear who is holding Levinson or where he is, but the proof that he is alive was a hopeful sign that whoever has him was willing to negotiate for his release.

“It has been almost four years since I have seen my beloved husband, Robert Levinson,” his wife, Christine, said in a statement on the family’s Web site. “Our family is tremendously encouraged by the news Bob is alive but remains concerned for his safety and well being.”

The Associated Press (AP) has known about the proof that Levinson is alive since shortly after it arrived, but delayed reporting it because officials said any publicity would jeopardize the ability to get Levinson home. AP is not disclosing the nature of the proof because officials believe that would hurt efforts to free him.

On Thursday, the US State Department issued a three-sentence statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton saying there were indications Levinson was in southwest Asia and asking Iran for help. The AP has learned fuller details after a lengthy investigation into Levinson’s disappearance and the effort to get him back to the US

Authorities don’t know why the evidence that Levinson was alive surfaced now after years of silence, but it has touched off the most hopeful round of diplomacy since he disappeared.

Iran has repeatedly said it has no information about Levinson, but US diplomats and investigators have long said they believed he was taken by Iranian government agents. The US announcement on Thursday was an abrupt change in tone from what had been stalemated discussions. The US has previously expressed deep frustration over what it said was Iran’s lack of cooperation.

As years passed, many in the US government believed the 62-year-old with diabetes and high blood pressure might have died.

With proof that he is alive, the case becomes one of the longer international hostage situations involving US citizens. Levinson is unusual, however, since nobody has publicly acknowledged holding him.

“It’s encouraging that we may have good news,” Florida Senator Bill Nelson said. “I’m praying that he can be reunited with his family.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been circumspect about what his country knows about Levinson. In the course of a single interview, he said he had no information, offered to help and accused the FBI of withholding information about why Levinson was in Iran.

Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998 and became a private investigator. He was investigating cigarette smuggling in early 2007, and his family has said that effort took him to Iran. Kish is a popular resort area, and a hotbed of smuggling and organized crime.

It is also a free-trade zone, meaning US citizens do not need visas to travel there.

Iran shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, raising the possibility that Levinson was shuttled into one of those countries. Both border crossings are known smuggling routes. The route into Pakistan leads into a lawless tribal region that’s home to insurgents, terrorist groups and criminal organizations.

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