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FBI offers $1 million reward for safe return of retired agent

By Juan Ortega, Sun Sentinel –

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Almost five years ago, Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent from Coral Springs, Fla., vanished on a resort island near the southern coast of Iran.

Now, the FBI is offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to the kidnapping victim’s safe return home. The reward was praised by his relatives, who have faced the ordeal of losing their patriarch and the frustrating inability to help from so far away.

“Knowing that Bob is being held against his will and not being able to help him, there are no words to describe the nightmare my family and I have been living every day,” Levinson’s wife of 37 years, Christine Levinson, said at a Washington, D.C., news conference on Tuesday.

The reward is part of a new FBI publicity campaign aimed at raising awareness about Levinson’s case, mainly in Southwest Asia, the region where the U.S. government received indications Levinson was being held captive.

At the FBI’s Washington field office, Christine Levinson thanked the FBI. The campaign kicked off just before the five-year anniversary of Bob Levinson’s disappearance, which is Friday. He turns 64 on Saturday.

“Our family believes that the efforts by the FBI are the best way to successfully find Bob and bring him home safely,” his wife said. “We also believe that Bob, as a retired FBI agent, would say the same.”

The lump-sum reward ultimately may be what leads to Levinson’s recovery, said James W. McJunkin, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

“We hope this reward will encourage anyone with information, no matter how insignificant they may think it is, to come forward,” McJunkin said.

Robert A. Levinson, a native of Flushing, N.Y., was a 22-year veteran of the FBI, having served as a special agent for the Los Angeles, New York and Miami field offices. Following his retirement, he took up work as a private investigator.

On March 9, 2007, he apparently was abducted during a private business trip to Kish Island, Iran, the FBI said. He was there working on behalf of several large corporations, investigating cigarette smuggling.

The Associated Press reported that Levinson spent one night in a hotel, meeting a fugitive named Dawud Salahuddin, a man sought in the killing of an Iranian diplomat in the United States in 1980. The AP said he checked out of his hotel and vanished.

The FBI said the circumstances of his disappearance have remained unknown.

Government officials first suspected Levinson was arrested by Iran intelligence agents, possibly to be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington.

But in November 2010, Levinson’s family received a “proof-of-life” video, showing Levinson thinner, unshaven and pleading for his release. The video represented a significant development in the case, in that Levinson appeared to be a hostage rather than a prisoner of any government.

In the video, Levinson said he wasn’t in “very good health,” and said he was running out of diabetes medicine. Eyes welling, he said: “Please help me get home.”

About a year ago, the U.S. secretary of state said the U.S. government had received indications that Levinson was being held by a group in Southwest Asia, which includes the border areas of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

Investigators have reason to believe he’s still alive, but his captors haven’t reached out to make demands, officials said. “We really don’t know at this point who has him or where he is physically located,” McJunkin said.

As part of the new campaign, the FBI will use billboards, radio messages and fliers across that region. The FBI also is setting up a telephone tips line there.

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