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Friday, February 27, 1998 Published at 17:45 GMT

World: Middle East

Israel apologises to Swiss over spying
image: [ The Swiss Secretary of State and the Federal Prosecutor announce announce spy arrest. ]
The Swiss Secretary of State and the Federal Prosecutor announce announce spy arrest.

Israel has offered an apology to Switzerland over the bungled spying mission by Mossad agents in Berne last week.

The Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Mayer, has presented a letter of apology to Swiss President Flavio Cotti.

Mr Cotti said this was a "positive first step", but a foreign ministry spokesman said "the affair remains a serious and unacceptable infringement of Swiss sovereignty."

[ image: Ex-Mossad head Danny Yatom.]
Ex-Mossad head Danny Yatom.
The Swiss President, Flavio Cotti is now reviewing plans for a visit to Israel in May.

Swiss authorities say five alleged Mossad agents were surprised on February 19 trying to install surveillance equipment in an apartment in Berne.

The identity of Mossad's target has not been revealed.

One Israeli newspaper has suggested the building housed offices of the Lebanese-based Hizbollah, while Swiss media speculated that the radical Islamic group, Hamas, was the target.

Suspects were released

The police only became involved when the agents were spotted carrying a suitcase into the apartment building.

One of the suspected agents was arrested after questioning. The other four were released, but arrest warrants were later issued for them. The authorities now believe the Israelis have probably left the country.

The Israeli government has been highly embarrassed by the affair because of its excellent relations with Switzerland, particularly in military and intelligence areas.

Failed operations

Mossad was once one of the most feared and respected intelligence agencies, but its reputation has recently suffered after a series of failed operations.

[ image: Khalid Meshal was the target of a failed assassination attempt.]
Khalid Meshal was the target of a failed assassination attempt.
Its head, Danny Yatom, resigned on Monday, the day after the Swiss government lodged its first protest with the Israeli ambassador.

In September 1997, the intelligence services bungled an attempt to kill Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Jordan.

An Israeli inquiry described the poisoning attempt as "amateurish", and it severely strained relations between Israel and Jordan.

In December Yehuda Gil, a former Mossad official, was arrested for falsifying Syrian intelligence reports over a period of years, exaggerating its aggressive intentions and pocketing money meant for informers. He is currently on trial.

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