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Mystery: A hostage video, family's desperate plea

Friday - 12/9/2011, 4:35pm  ET

By MATT APUZZO and ADAM GOLDMAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Christine Levinson had endured nearly four years of despair since her husband, Robert, disappeared in Iran. Every glimmer of hope in the U.S. government's search for him had faded away, every optimistic lead had ended with disappointment. Privately, some believed he was probably dead.

Then, in November 2010, the mother of seven, who had never given up hope, received in an email from an unknown address. A file was attached.

But it would not open.

Frantically, she forwarded it to some computer savvy friends, people close to the family recalled. Can you open this, she asked? What is it?

Finally, the file opened. Her friends held the phone to the computer. And though she could not see his face, she immediately recognized the voice.

"My beautiful, my loving, my loyal wife, Christine," Robert Levinson began.

It was a video, the proof of life that the family had sought for so long.

The video, which the Coral Springs, Fla., family released Friday, represented the most significant clue in a mystery that has confounded investigators from the start. But it did not end the family's vigil, or answer the most important questions: Who was holding Levinson? And why?

On the tape, Robert Levinson, the once burly, gregarious retired FBI agent, looked haggard. His voice wavered. But he was alive.

"I have been treated well. But I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three and a half years," Levinson said. "And please help me get home."

He was a hostage.

It was the first breakthrough in the case since Levinson, a private detective, traveled to the Iranian island of Kish in March 2007. His family said he was there investigating cigarette smuggling for a corporate client. He spent one night in a hotel, meeting a fugitive named Dawud Salahuddin, a man wanted for the murder of an Iranian diplomat in the United States in 1980.

Levinson checked out of his hotel and vanished.

Everything after that has been a mystery. The video, however, contained some tantalizing clues, and the government's experts have studied each one.

The faint music in the background, it was determined, was Pashto wedding music from a region in Pakistan and Afghanistan, just over Iran's eastern border.

The email address traced back to an Internet cafe in Pakistan, according to several officials who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the case.

And then there were Levinson's words. He said a "group" held him, not a government. And he said he had been held "here" for that time, suggesting he had not been moved. But his words appeared scripted. It could all be misdirection.

The video ignited the most hopeful round of diplomacy in his case to date. Publicly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in March that Levinson was alive and called on Iran to help find him. More privately, U.S. officials met with members of the Iranian government to discuss the case.

Momentum seemed to be building toward Levinson's release.

But some things didn't add up. Most significantly, the note accompanying the video demanded the release of prisoners. But officials said the United States wasn't holding those prisoners. They concluded that some of them might not even be real people.

U.S. officials and Levinson's family and friends were convinced that someone was trying to tell them something, but they didn't know who or what. Whoever had Levinson, they figured, wanted to instill a sense of urgency.

"I am not in very good health," Levinson, who is now 63, said in the video. "I am running very quickly out of diabetes medicine."

Then, early this year, the family received another email, this one containing photos showing Levinson in an orange prison jumpsuit like those worn by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison. He had a long beard and disheveled hair. He was even thinner.

In each photo, he wore a different sign hung around his neck. One read, "Why you can not help me."

This time, officials traced the email back to Afghanistan. They still had no idea where Levinson was.

Perhaps the clues meant he was being held in Balochistan _ a rugged, arid region that spans parts of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maybe he was in the lawless tribal region along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. These areas are home to terrorists, militant groups and criminal organizations.

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