NZ leader: Israeli spy ring report unfounded

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key arrives during a welcome ceremony at the Indian Presidential Palace in New Delhi June 28, 2011.
AFP/Getty Images

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - A group of young Israelis caught up in the deadly Christchurch earthquake were investigated for possible links to Israeli intelligence, but no connection was found, New Zealand's prime minister said Wednesday.

Prime Minister John Key was responding to a newspaper report that the quake may have unearthed an Israeli spy ring.

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Three Israelis died in the Feb. 22 quake that killed 181 people in Christchurch. At least three more Israelis escaped the quake and quickly departed the country.

Key said in a statement that there was "no evidence that the people were anything other than backpackers."

A story written by the Southland Times and carried Wednesday by several large New Zealand newspapers pointed to a number of suspicious circumstances surrounding the Israelis.

But a major claim in the story — that one of the dead Israelis was found to be carrying at least five passports — was disputed by the prime minister.

Key said the man was found with just one European passport. His companions handed over a second passport, his Israeli one, when they left the country, the prime minister said.

The Israeli ambassador to New Zealand, Shemi Tzur, dismissed the report as "science fiction," the Southland Times reported. He told the newspaper that the Israelis were "youngsters holidaying in your beautiful country."

The ambassador, who was traveling Wednesday, could not immediately be reached by The Associated Press.