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Family of Robert Levinson, missing ex-FBI agent, releases hostage video

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WASHINGTON (AP) - The family of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished years ago in Iran, issued a plea to his kidnappers Friday and, for the first time, released a hostage video they received from his unidentified captors.

Robert Levinson (Photo: Associated Press)

The video message released on the Levinson family's website publicly transformed the mysterious disappearance into an international hostage standoff. Despite a lengthy investigation, however, the U.S. government has no evidence of who is holding the 63-year-old father of seven.

"Please tell us your demands so we can work together to bring my father home safely," says Levinson's son David, seated beside his mother, Christine.

The video plea represents a sharp change in strategy in a case that, for years, the United States treated as a diplomatic issue rather than a hostage situation. Christine Levinson, who lives in Coral Springs, Fla., has issued many public statements over the years, but she typically directed them to her missing husband or to the government of Iran.

In the hostage video, which the family received in November 2010, Levinson pleaded with the U.S. government to meet the demands of the people holding him, whom he did not identify.

The 54-second hostage video showed Levinson looking haggard but unharmed, sitting in front of what appeared to be a concrete wall. He had lost considerable weight, particularly in his face, and his white shirt hung off him. There were no signs of recent mistreatment. But Levinson, who has a history of diabetes and high blood pressure, implored the U.S. to help him quickly.

"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 says. "And please help me get home."

His voice weakens and breaks as he speaks of "my beautiful, my loving, my loyal wife, Christine," as well as his children and his grandson.

"I am not in very good health," he says. "I am running very quickly out of diabetes medicine."

The Associated Press saw the video soon after it arrived last year but did not immediately report it because the U.S. government said doing so would complicate diplomatic efforts to bring Levinson home.

Now, those efforts appear to have stalled, U.S. relations with Iran have worsened and Levinson's family has stepped out of diplomatic channels to appeal directly to the kidnappers.

"We are not part of any government and we are not experts on the region," David Levinson says. "No one can help us but you. Please help us."

In the nearly five years that Levinson has been missing, the U.S. government has never had solid intelligence about what happened to him. Levinson had been retired from the FBI for years and was working as a private investigator when he traveled to the Iran in March 2007. His family has said an investigation into cigarette smuggling brought him to Kish, a resort island where Americans need no visa to visit.

The prevailing U.S. government theory had been that Levinson was arrested by Iranian intelligence officials to be interrogated and used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington. But as every lead fizzled and Iran repeatedly denied any involvement in his disappearance, many in the U.S. government believed Levinson was probably dead.

The surprise arrival of the video, followed by a series of photographs, quickly changed that view. But they did little to settle the question of his whereabouts. The video, in fact, contained tantalizing clues suggesting Levinson was not being held in Iran at all, but rather in Pakistan, hundreds of miles from where he disappeared. The photographs, which arrived a few months after the video, contained hints that Levinson might be in Afghanistan, according to several U.S. officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the sensitive case.

The video prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to announce publicly in March that Levinson was alive and urged the Iranians to help find him. Though the legacy of the 1979 hostage standoff with Iran looms over all relations between the two countries, Clinton did not refer to Levinson as a hostage in March and she softened the U.S. rhetoric toward Tehran.

The video also helped initiate a series of discreet discussions between U.S. and Iranian officials, conversations that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in September were producing good results.

Not long after Clinton's remarks, the Levinson family received a series of photos of Levinson dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit like the ones worn by detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In these photos, Levinson's hair and beard were much longer and he looked thinner.

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

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