TEHRAN (Reuters) - A former FBI agent is being held by Iranian authorities, the Financial Times reported on Friday, but U.S. officials said they were still unable to verify the whereabouts of the missing American.
Florida resident and ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing while on a visit to the Gulf island of Kish in Iran early in March. His family has not heard from him since and U.S. officials told Reuters they do not have any valid leads.
Diplomats fear the case of Levinson could mark a new twist in apparent tit-for-tat detentions involving the United States, Britain and Iran, which began with the detention by U.S. forces in Iraq of five Iranians in January and the capture of 15 British sailors by Iran who were freed last week.
The Financial Times quoted one of Levinson’s associates, Dawud Salahuddin — himself a U.S. citizen wanted by U.S. authorities for an alleged murder in 1980 — as saying he and Levinson had shared a hotel room on Kish on March 8.
Iranian officials in plain clothes came to the room and detained and questioned Salahuddin about his Iranian passport, Salahuddin said. On his release a day later, Levinson had disappeared, and the Iranian officials told Salahuddin he had left Iran.
“I don’t think he is missing, but don’t want to point my finger at anyone. Some people know exactly where he is,” Salahuddin told the newspaper. “He came only to see me.”
Salahuddin confirmed the details of the Financial Times story to Reuters but did not comment further.
When asked whether he was concerned for Levinson, he said: “No, but it is something that hangs over my head because I feel responsible for him.” He said this was because Levinson had come to speak to him.
U.S. officials in Washington said they had not been able to independently verify Salahuddin’s version of events.
“We believe that there were contacts between this guy (Salahuddin) and Levinson. The comments by Dawud generally track with what we think he has said before but we cannot independently confirm or verify much of it,” said the U.S. official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Washington has made an official diplomatic inquiry to Iran about Levinson, who U.S. officials say went there on private business. Tehran says it is trying to find out what happened to him and has asked the United States for more information.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Washington still did not have any “credible” information about Levinson’s whereabouts.
“We continue to be very concerned about his well-being and want to do everything we can to try to locate him,” Casey told reporters in Washington.
Salahuddin said he was worried about Levinson’s health but was confident “he is well taken care of” by Iranian authorities, the newspaper quoted him as saying.
He said the purpose of his meeting with Levinson was to put him in touch with Iranian authorities to help his investigations into cigarette smuggling, as part of the former FBI agent’s work for a tobacco company, the FT reported.
Salahuddin, also known as David Belfield and Hassan Abdulrahman, is a U.S. citizen who converted to Islam. He is wanted by Washington for the 1980 murder of a former Iranian diplomat and opponent of the Islamic revolution which overthrew the shah in 1979.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington