x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Turkey spy linked to Syrian refugees' abduction and return for reward

Five people have been detained for allegedly abducting a former Syrian military officer from a refugee camp in southern Turkey and sending him back to Syria, where he was reportedly executed last month.

ISTANBUL // Five people, including a former member of Turkey's main intelligence service, have been detained for allegedly abducting a former Syrian military officer from a refugee camp in southern Turkey and sending him back to Syria, where he was reportedly executed last month.

A high criminal court in the southern Turkish city of Adana placed the former agent of the National Intelligence organisation (MIT) and four other suspects into custody on Sunday, a spokeswoman of the special prosecutor's office in Adana said by telephone yesterday.

Special prosecutors, tasked with investigating cases of terrorism and organised crime, were working on an indictment, which would be presented to the court, she said. If the court accepts the indictment, a date for a trial will be set.

The case is a potential embarrassment for the Turkish government, which has stated repeatedly that it is ready to welcome all Syrians who want to flee the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's regime.

Citing the necessity to protect around 7,500 Syrians who have fled to Turkey, Ankara has restricted access to refugee camps set up to house the refugees. More than 6,000 people have died in Syria since last March as the Assad government tries to quell a popular uprising.

The former MIT agent, who was identified by the initials OS in Turkish news reports, is accused of abducting Colonel Hussein Harmush and Major Mustafa Kassum from a refugee camp in Hatay province, which borders Adana province, on August 29 last year. Col Harmush gained prominence after he fled from Syria to Turkey in June and used media interviews to accuse the Assad regime of killing civilians.

Col Harmush also played a role in organizing anti-Assad troops. The colonel founded the Brigade of Free Officers, a group that later joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), headed by Col Riyadh Al Asaad. The FSA has taken up arms against government troops in Syria. News reports said the Syrian government put a bounty of $100,000 (Dh 367,300) on Col Harmush's head.

OS presented falsified documents to authorities running the refugee camp in Altinozu in Hatay to get Col Harmush out of the camp, news reports said. He later handed the Syrian colonel over to accomplices who brought the officer to Syria by boat. Last September, Col Harmush's "confessions" were aired on Syrian national television, according to Agence-France Presse. On January 30, the Syrian League for Human Rights, a non-governmental group, said that Col Harmush had been executed.

Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported that Maj Kassum was abducted together with Col Harmush and handed over to the Syrians as well. His fate was unknown.

OS was arrested by police after he returned from Syria on February 3, news reports said. A large amount of US dollars were found in the trunk of his car, the reports said. OS was fired by the MIT after police presented evidence, including records of wiretapped telephone conversations, showing OS's involvement in the abduction of intelligence officials, the reports said.

It remained unclear what triggered the investigation by the police and prosecutor's office in Adana against OS and the other suspects. Some Turkish news reports said Ibrahim Harmush, a brother of Col Harmush who had also fled to Turkey, wrote to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, in September to tell him about the suspected abduction of his brother. Shortly afterwards, the prosecutor in Adana began with the probe, the reports said.

News of the former MIT agent's detention followed a standoff between the government and the judiciary over the role of the spy agency last week.

Prosecutors in Istanbul called in high-ranking MIT officials, including Hakan Fidan, the MIT chief, to be questioned over contacts between the intelligence service and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a rebel group fighting Ankara since 1984. According to news reports, MIT informers in the militant Kurdish scene are suspected of having committed crimes.

The government refused to have Mr Fidan and the other officials questioned despite arrest warrants being issued for some of them. Last Saturday, one of the prosecutors involved was taken off the case by his superiors.

tseibert@thenational.ae