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Azeri 'hitman' accused of targeting Israelis set to stand trial in Cyprus

Azerbaijani national is accused of recruiting Pakistani and Lebanese accomplices to assassinate Israeli businesspeople
Cypriot police have formally charged an Azeri man on suspicion that he planned to carry out contract killings of Israelis living on the island (AFP/File photo)

Cypriot police have officially brought charges against an Azeri man for attempting to assassinate Israelis living on the island, a law enforcement official told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

The Azerbaijani national is set to go on trial next month on eight charges including conspiracy to commit murder, belonging to a criminal enterprise and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, the AP reported. The suspect also faces a terrorism-related charge.

A Cypriot official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP that the Azeri was arrested last month "in the nick of time", with a pistol and silencer in his possession just before he was to begin assassinating targets.

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Speculation has swirled over the intentions of the alleged assassin, who divided his time between the internationally recognised Greek government in the south and the Turkish northern half of the Mediterranean island.

Initial claims that he was targeting an Israeli casino and business magnet in a potential mafia hit were refuted by the Israeli prime minister's office last month.

"I can clarify on behalf of the security establishment, that this was an act of terror that was orchestrated by Iran against Israeli businesspeople living in Cyprus," a spokesperson in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office said at the time.

The embassy of Iran in Cyprus has called the claims "baseless".

Israel has acknowledged pursuing covert operations against Iran's nuclear programme and is widely believed to have assassinated several Iranian scientists.

A plot by Iran to target Israeli nationals on the island of Cyprus would add a new layer to the deadly "shadow war" playing out between the two arch-rivals.

Clouded in secrecy

Citing the sensitive nature of the case, Cypriot authorities have kept a tight lid on the investigation and barred journalists from attending court proceedings.

The Azeri was reportedly arrested carrying a Russian passport on 27 September after crossing over the Green Line in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, which divides the Greek and Turkish halves of the island.

The suspect allegedly recruited five accomplices - four Pakistani fast food delivery drivers and one Lebanese man - who are also set to stand trial on the same charges.

The Azeri faces the majority of the charges, including using forged passports and money laundering. The indictment alleged he received $40,000 earlier this year to carry out terrorism.

According to reporting by the Cypriot newspaper Politis, the Azeri national reportedly told investigators before receiving legal representation that he was provided with the funds from a man called "Mohammed", who told him to go to Cyprus and intimidate wealthy Israeli businesspeople.

The Azeri was also allegedly found to have images on his phone relating to the Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

Court documents also claim that one of the Pakistani suspects had links to an Iran-backed militia of Shia Pakistanis fighting on behalf of the Assad government in the Syrian conflict.

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