Italian authorities have issued an international arrest warrant for the grandfather of 6-year-old Eitan Biran, who survived a cable car accident near Lake Maggiore this summer that killed both of his parents, sparking an extended custody dispute.
This September, Eitan's grandfather, 58-year-old Shmuel Peleg, picked up the boy – who is a dual Israeli-Italian citizen and was in the custody of his aunt in the city of Pavia – for a court-ordered visit before spiriting him out of the country on a private jet.
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In addition to Peleg, a second warrant was issued by Pavia judge Pasquale Villani for the arrest of a man identified as Gabriel Abutbul Alon, an Israeli said to be linked to the now defunct U.S. military contractor Blackwater, who drove Peleg and Biran to the airport, according to a statement from the Pavia prosecutor's office.
The orders were signed at the end of lengthy and complicated investigations conducted by Pavia's prosecutor, Mario Vanditi, which testify "to the use of military and intelligence techniques.”
The Pavia prosecutor’s office accused the two suspects of "kidnapping offenses, abduction, detention of a minor abroad and willful non-compliance” with a judge’s orders.
Prosecutors said that they were able to reconstruct the abduction “in detail” following a "meticulous and complex investigation” into the “shady” actions of the suspects, which included the rental of multiple cars and communications using "foreign telephone numbers.”
The prosecutor's office said in a press release that "Peleg's many trips to Switzerland in the days leading up to September 11 (the abduction) are further confirmation of the early planning of the abduction."
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They stated that the Pelegs also engaged in several attempts at bribery in order to put their plan into action. This includes an Israeli citizen who has lived in Italy for years who testified that Esther Cohen contacted him in July for "assistance in transferring the child to Israel for a considerable sum of money."
Peleg and his ex-wife Esther Cohen, who is also under investigation, "had developed over time a feeling of hostility” toward Biran-Nirko and were further “annoyed” by a judge’s decision to give her custody, the statement said, adding that this "deep conviction that the grandson should be entrusted to the maternal family and permanently transferred to his country of origin in Israel” had led directly to the abduction, which was "carried out with clear premeditation and meticulous organization."
The prosecutors further stated that Alon, who they described as “probably” connected to Blackwater, had been “hired” to assist in the abduction and drove Peleg and Biran from Italy to Lugano, Switzerland, where the conspirators had chartered a German plane to Israel at a cost of 42,000 Euros ($48,568).
According to Corriere della Sera, the international arrest warrants were transferred by international channels to Israel and Cyprus, Alon's place of residence. It was further reported that Alon had initially identified himself as a lawyer for Peleg during a hearing in August before changing tack and calling himself a "legal consultant for a Tel Aviv firm."
Alon has used an email address, indicating an affiliation with Academi, the controversial American military contractor formerly known as Blackwater.
Peleg's lawyer in Italy told Reuters he had already filed an appeal against the arrest warrant.
This follows an Israeli court ruling two weeks ago that six-year-old Eitan Biran must be returned to his aunt in Italy. The boy's paternal aunt, Aya Biran Nirko, filed a civil custody suit following Eitan's abduction by his maternal grandfather. Peleg has appealed the ruling and will appear in court tomorrow to deliver it.
Contacted by Reuters, the aunt's lawyers declined to comment. Peleg's family said they had not received any arrest warrants, declining further comment. A lawyer for Alon could not be immediately reached for comment.
Eitan was the only survivor when the cable car he was riding with his 2-year-old brother Tom and parents Amit Biran and Tal Peleg-Biran, an Israeli couple studying and working in Italy, plunged to the ground at a popular tourist site in late May.
Also killed were Tal’s grandparents Barbara and Itzhak Cohen, who were visiting Italy at the time. In total, 14 people lost their lives in the accident, which investigators later blamed on negligence by the gondola’s operators.
Reuters contributed to this report.