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Israel says eight Iranian Jews missing since 1990s were murdered

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel declared dead on Thursday eight Iranian Jews who disappeared while trying to leave Iran in the 1990s, saying its Mossad intelligence service had proof that they had been murdered.

The men were among 12 members of the Islamic republic's Jewish minority whose disappearances in 1994 and 1997, and the attendant silence from Tehran, have been cited by the U.S. State Department as pointing to possible anti-Semitic persecution.

The families of the eight had pressed Israel to seek information about their fate as part of its past prisoner swaps with Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Iran is deeply hostile to the Jewish state, precluding any direct inquiries.

In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said that the Mossad had investigated and "received from a reliable source, privy to the details, information that these Jews were captured and murdered while escaping (Iran)".

The statement did not elaborate on who might have carried out the killings.

It described the eight as part of a group of 11 missing Iranian Jews, but it did not name them or offer an explanation as to the discrepancy with the U.S. figure of 12.

The announcement appeared primarily aimed at comforting the relatives of the men who disappeared, including wives now officially declared widows by a senior Israeli rabbi.

But it also sought to burnish the credentials of the Mossad, which is widely believed to have been carrying out sabotage and espionage to hold up Iran's nuclear projects while world powers try to negotiate formal curbs with Tehran.

Learning what happened to the Jews who disappeared "was a sensitive and complicated investigation that constitutes another achievement for the State of Israel's intelligence capabilities," the statement said.

(Writing by Dan Williams)

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