Dubai: Mystery shrouds the sinking of a tour boat full of Israeli and Italian intelligence figures in Italy’s Lake Maggiore earlier this week.
Four people, including a retired Mossad agent died when the boat sank just 100 metres from the shore.
The strange nature of the tragedy drew widespread attention after Rome acknowledged that two of the dead — Claudio Alonzi, 62, and Tiziana Barnobi, 53, — worked for the Italian secret services.
Adding to the mystery, ten surviving Mossad agents appeared to have been spirited away from the lake within hours of the accident. The Mossad sent an aircraft to return the Israeli survivors home, and tried to prevent publication of details about the incident in Israel, reports said.
Though Israeli officials have not released the dead agent’s name, Italian media reports identified him as 50-year-old Erez Shimoni.
Birthday party or spy party?
Former Mossad agent Mishka Ben-David told the Kan public broadcaster that one possible reason why Israel has not officially named the man is that he likely was using an alias abroad and that Erez Shimoni is not his real name. Ben-David also cast his doubts on the official claim that the boat was hosting a birthday party, The Times of Israel said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirmed that he was a retired member of Mossad, the country’s national intelligence agency.
“The Mossad lost a dear friend, a devoted and professional member who dedicated his life to the security of the State of Israel for decades,” the office said in a statement, a Reuters report said.
“Given his service with the agency it is not possible to elaborate on his identity,” it added.
The fourth victim was a Russian named Anya Bozhkova, 50. She was the wife of the Italian captain of the boat, the Gooduria, which was rented out to tourists for trips around the lake.
When it sank, the boat was carrying 23 passengers when it could only legally hold 15, according to a report.
Five days after Gooduria, a 16-metre houseboat, sank in the lake, there is growing speculation over what its passengers were doing in a corner of northern Italy.
Several Italian media outlets labelled the gathering a “spy party”.
The Corriere della Sera daily newspaper has reported that the gathering was a working meeting of intelligence agents.
The newspaper said the Israelis had not initially planned to board the boat but did so after a meeting they were participating in went longer than expected and they missed their flight home.
According to reports, 19 out of the 23 people on board were serving or past Israeli and Italian agents.
“It was an opportunity to exchange information between agents of the two countries,” La Stampa reported.
Italy’s media outlets are now delving into the supposed activities of the people on board the boat, with some suggesting the official claim of a birthday party was covering up an operational meeting between Israeli and Italian intelligence agents.
Neither Italy nor Israel have commented on the gathering.
No one has suggested foul play in the accident.
Magistrates are investigating whether there were more people than permitted aboard the boat and whether it should have been sailing on the lake given the bad weather.
Witnesses have said the storm hit suddenly, packing powerful winds and dumping a huge quantity of rain on the lake.