JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's Mossad intelligence agency says eight Iranian Jews who disappeared while trying to leave the Islamic Republic in the 1990s were captured and killed.
The eight were among at least 11 other Jewish men and teenagers who disappeared while to trying to emigrate to Israel from Iran in 1994 and in 1997. The identity of the killers was not mentioned by the agency and the fate of the others is still unknown.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, which oversees the agency, said in a statement that during Mossad's investigation, "intelligence sources received information from a credible source that these same Jews were caught during the escape and murdered."
It said it was a "sensitive and complex" mission and that it is still investigating what happened to the others.
Netanyahu sent his condolences to the families, while a former chief Rabbi met with the relatives when they were notified.
Iran's Jewish community has deep roots in the country reaching back more than 2,000 years. It has dwindled over the decades to some 25,000 people — a tiny minority in a total population of about 75 million, but still the Middle East's largest Jewish community outside Israel.
Though technically protected by Iran's constitution, Iran's Jews have led an uneasy existence under the Islamic government.
For years, the families tried to get information about the fate of their loved ones but the Iranian government refused to give them any information, said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli lawyer representing the relatives of the men. Families said they scoured hospitals and police stations and jails across Iran but found nothing, she said.
She said 12 Jewish Iranians went missing in total.
In 2006, Darshan-Leitner filed a lawsuit on behalf of the families claiming that former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami instituted policies that prevented the relatives from having trials and did not give family members information about their whereabouts.
David Meidan, a senior Mossad official, said the "the mystery has reached its end." He said finding a "credible source in a difficult region" was a "a major intelligence achievement" that shed light on the fate of the missing persons.
"This is an issue that has preoccupied the intelligence services for two decades," Meidan said.
Iran and Israel are bitter enemies. Israel views Iran as an existential threat because of the frequent calls by Iranian leaders for the destruction of the Jewish state, Tehran's nuclear and missile programs and support for violent groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Tensions between Iran and Israel have been high for years and the Jewish community tries to keep a low profile. Tehran's leadership of hard-line Muslim clerics likes to tout their presence as proof of what they say is the government's tolerance.
The biggest exception to that is a closed-door trial in 2000 that found 10 Iranian Jews guilty of spying for Israel and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from four to 13 years.
The trial was widely condemned and drew international scrutiny, with human rights groups questioning whether the closed-door proceedings could be fair when there was no jury and the judge also acted as prosecutor.