Elizabeth Tsurkov: Israel claims Iraqi militia is holding missing researcher

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office says Iraq will be held responsible for the hostage's well-being

Israeli-Russian academic Elisabeth Tsurkov. AFP
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An Israeli-Russian academic thought to have gone missing in Baghdad in March is alive and being held in Iraq by Shiite group Kataeb Hezbollah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said on Wednesday.

A statement named the woman as Elisabeth Tsurkov. It said she had gone to Iraq for research on behalf of Princeton University in the US. There were no immediate details on her condition.

Ms Tsurkov entered Iraq on her Russian passport, the statement read.

"Elisabeth Tsurkov is still alive and we see Iraq as responsible for her fate and well-being," the statement said. The situation is being handled by the relevant bodies in Israel, it added.

Ms Tsurkov's mother, Irena, said they lost contact two months ago. "From what I had known ... she was in Turkey, working on her research for Princeton. I didn't even know she was in Iraq," she told N12 News.

Israeli citizens are forbidden from travelling to Iraq. Kataeb Hezbollah is one of the most powerful Iran-backed militia groups there.

Ms Tsurkov's disappearance was not widely reported.

According to New Lines magazine, a publication of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a think tank in Washington where Ms Tsurkov was a fellow, she was abducted in the Iraqi capital in late March. The last post on her Twitter account was on March 21.

Ms Tsurkov's research focused on the Levant and particularly the Syrian civil war, her website says.

New Lines said her kidnapping was first reported by Michael Rubin, an American analyst whose focus is Iraq and Iran. Mr Rubin said in June that Ms Tsurkov had been detained by militias after being warned not to return to Iraq, where she had previously conducted field research in Mosul and the Kurdistan region.

His reference to her kidnapping links to a March 29 story in The New Arab, which incorrectly reports the kidnapping of a Russian-American academic in the Karrada neighbourhood of Baghdad.

"Investigations are continuing with the kidnapping, and under the supervision of the office of Prime Minister Muhammad Shia Al Sudani, in order to uncover the entire network involved in the kidnapping," an Iraqi security force statement said at the time.

New Lines stressed that Ms Tsurkov was a passionate critic of Israel, while also aiming strong criticism at Iran's allies in the Middle East. The publication said that her criticism of all countries that could secure her release, including Russia, could complicate efforts to secure her safety.

In May last year, Iraq passed a law criminalising any ties with Israel. The law also applied to foreigners working in Iraq, potentially putting Ms Tsurkov at risk, even before considering the presence of Iran-backed militias such as Kataib Hezbollah.

The group is accused of kidnapping and killing hundreds of Iraqis, sometimes with no announced justification for its actions. In January, the group was accused of kidnapping an Iraqi environmentalist, reportedly because he had criticised the construction of dams in Iran on social media.

New Lines stressed that Ms Tsurkov's work was purely academic in nature, focused heavily on political science.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Updated: November 14, 2023, 8:45 AM