More details emerged about a series of alleged Israeli airstrikes in northern Sudan in late January and early last month. But experts say some claims must be treated with caution.
Reuters reports Israeli fighter-bombers, backed by unmanned aerial vehicles, ships and helicopters, attacked a convoy in Sudan in January after agents told it the trucks were taking Iranian missiles to Hamas.
The wire service quotes Time magazine as saying in its issue out today the 23-truck convoy was carrying the missiles to Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers who were then fighting Israel.
Israel has declined to comment on media reports about the attack, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak refused to reveal any details when asked about the Time article.
“I don’t believe that in our current situation we have the privilege to talk too much. We must do what is needed and keep quiet,” he told reporters during a tour of the Golan Heights.
The magazine said US officials were informed of the strike, but were not involved.
“The attack was a warning to Iran and other adversaries, showing Israel’s intelligence capability and its willingness to mount operations far beyond its borders in order to defend itself from gathering threats,” it said on its web site.
The story, like others in the past week on the subject, was widely picked up by Israeli media, which operate under strict military censorship when reporting local security affairs.
The closest Israel has come to an apparent public statement was on Thursday, when outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel acted “wherever we can” against its enemies: “There’s no point getting into details — everyone can use his imagination.”
On Friday, Sudan said it suspected Israel of two attacks on smuggling convoys in a remote northern region that killed up to 40 people. A foreign ministry spokesman said the vehicles hit in the raid were too small to be smuggling weapons.
Like Olmert, incoming right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not ruled out Israeli military action to prevent Iran acquiring an atomic arsenal, even if Israel’s key ally the United States does not cooperate.
Analysts question Israel’s long-range military capabilities but its forces, which are widely assumed to possess their own nuclear weapons, do train for missions as far away as Iran, much of which lies further from Israel than does northern Sudan.
The Jewish state, which surprised Saddam Hussein with an air strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, bombed a site in Syria in 2007 that US officials called a secret nuclear facility. It has long had a reputation for covert action around the world.
Time said F-16 fighter-bombers carried out two runs on the convoy, while F-15 fighters provided cover and naval helicopters were on hand to rescue any downed pilots. In-flight refuelling tankers were also used, its sources said.
After a first bombing run, unmanned drones sent back images showing some trucks were not hit and the F-16s went in again.
An Israeli security source told Reuters that Israel suspected Iran was trying to provide Hamas with missiles, based on a Soviet design commonly known as FROG [“free rocket over ground”]. Their range of 70 km (45 miles) is more than double that of Hamas’s current arsenal.
The Sunday Times version
The British Sunday Times newspaper reported at the weekend Israel used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to attack what it says were “secret Iranian convoys in Sudan that were trying to smuggle rockets into Gaza.”
The missiles have the range to strike Tel Aviv and Israel`s nuclear reactor at Dimona, defence sources told the London-based paper.
The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) attacked two convoys, killing at least 50 smugglers and their Iranian escorts.
All the trucks carrying the long-range rockets were destroyed.
“Had the rockets been delivered to Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, they would have dramatically raised the stakes in the conflict, enabling Palestinians to wreak terror on Tel Aviv,” the paper said.
According to western diplomats, Israel attacked the Iranian convoys at the end of January and in the first week of February in the remote Sudan desert, just outside Port Sudan. The convoys had been tracked down by agents from Mossad, Israel`s overseas intelligence agency.
The raids were carried out by armed Israeli-designed and built Hermes 450 UAVs.
One source claimed they were accompanied by giant Eitan UAVs, which have a 110ft wingspan, similar to that of a Boeing 737. The drones [sic], controlled via satellite, can hover over a target for 24 hours.
The Hermes 450 squadron is based at the Palmahim air base, south of Tel Aviv, but it remains unclear from which airfield they took off.
Defence sources said the chief reason for choosing the drones was that a convoy forms a “slippery” target.
“When you attack a fixed target, especially a big one, you are better off using jet aircraft. But with a moving target with no definite time for the move UAVs are best, as they can hover extremely high and remain unseen until the target is on the move.”
According to sources, the convoys were carrying Fajr3 rockets, which have a range of more than 40 miles, and were split into sections so they could be smuggled through tunnels into Gaza from Egypt.
“They built the Fajr in parts so it would be easy to smuggle them into Gaza, then reassemble them with Hamas experts who learnt the job in Syria and Iran,” said a source.
The paper added that Iranian Revolutionary Guards masterminded the smuggling operation. “The Iranians arrived in Port Sudan and liaised with local smugglers,” said a source. The convoy was heading for the Egyptian border where, for a fat fee, local smugglers would take over.
Reuters reports Sudan on Friday commented on the incident for the first time. “The first thought is that it was the Americans that did it. We contacted the Americans and they categorically denied they were involved,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig said. “We are still trying to verify it. Most probably it involved Israel.”
His comments are the first official government acknowledgement of the strikes, first reported earlier this week in Egyptian Arabic-language newspaper el-Shorouk.
Sadig said one attack was thought to have taken place in the last week of January and one in mid-February.
“We didn’t know about the first attack until after the second one. They were in an area close to the border with Egypt, a remote area, desert, with no towns, no people,” he told Reuters.
Sudan was gathering evidence at the sites where the convoys were hit, he added.
“There is no proof they were carrying weapons. They were smuggling something, but the pickups were small. You don’t carry weapons in small pickups,” he said.
The New York Times on Friday quoted unnamed US officials as saying that Israeli warplanes attacked a convoy suspected of ferrying arms to Gaza during Israel’s offensive against Hamas.
Such a mission would have to breach multiple Egyptian checkpoints both in the Nile valley and the Sinai Peninsula, which analysts see as unlikely.
“I am skeptical that such a large number of arms, including long-range missiles, could pass through Egypt unnoticed,” said Issandr el-Amrani, a North Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“The implication is that Egypt is a major transit point … for arms to Gaza. That is a huge allegation,” he said.
The Chinese Xinhua news agency adds that the Palestinian Islamic Hamas movement on Saturday denied any link to the convoys.