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Suspect Denies Terrorist Links

July 4, 2000

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) _ A Swiss-Lebanese man at the center of a bungled Israeli spy operation said Tuesday that the Islamic center he ran was set up for religious purposes and was not linked to anti-Israeli activities.

On the second day of the trial of an Israeli Mossad agent caught in a February 1998 espionage attempt, lawyers for the Swiss government and the agent probed for links between Abdallah el-Zein and terrorist masters in Lebanon and Iran.

But a Swiss police expert testified that investigators had been unable to connect the worldwide network of Ahl El-Beit centers to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed guerrilla group that fought to oust Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.

``The suspicion exists,″ said Hans Knaus of Switzerland’s federal police. ``But we have not been able to confirm it.″

Other police officers described Tuesday how they caught the Israeli agent, identified as Issac Bental, and four colleagues installing bugging equipment after midnight in the basement of an apartment building where el-Zein had lived near the capital, Bern.

Police were called in when neighbors reported strange noises.

Rudolf Leuenberger of Bern state police said he and his partner found Bental and two other agents in the basement and said there were enough suspicious elements, including identical stamps in their Israeli passports, that police decided to take them in for questioning. Two other agents keeping watch outside were also questioned.

Only Bental was arrested, because he was holding a bag with tools to install the wiretap.

Contained in two hollowed-out boards about four feet long, the bugging system included a cellular phone, a timer and 24 batteries. The phone was set up to dial a recording center every time the telephone in el-Zein’s apartment was taken off the hook.

``It could have worked for years,″ said Victor Ruefenacht, the federal police technology expert.

El-Zein told the court that the Ahl El-Beit center he ran organized soccer teams, promoted friendship and sent money to orphans in Lebanon and Iraq, but its main purpose was to encourage Islamic worship.

``Of course there are other activities but the main purpose is religious,″ he told the Federal Criminal Court.

Bental said Monday that he had been told el-Zein had sent people on terrorist missions to Israel. El-Zein denies the allegations and has settled a separate suit against Bental out of court.

The Mossad agent’s lawyer, Ralph M. Zloczower, asked el-Zein about his contacts with figures prominent in Ahl El-Beit, including Saddredine Fadlallah, head of the organization’s center in Paris.

El-Zein acknowledged meeting Fadlallah, but said he didn’t know Fadlallah is the son of the Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, widely believed to be the spiritual guide of Hezbollah.

Bental, who is being tried under a pseudonym, is believed to be the first admitted Mossad agent to go on trial in a foreign country.

Bental has said that the three charges against him are correct _ that he acted illegally for a foreign country, conducted political espionage and repeatedly used false foreign identity documents. If found guilty, he could face a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment.

Lawyers are to make closing arguments on Thursday, and sentencing is expected Friday.

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