KHARTOUM, Sudan – Sudan believes Israel was behind airstrikes on its soil last month that targeted weapons smugglers, apparently on suspicion the arms were destined for Hamas militants in Gaza, a senior Sudanese official said Friday.
Word of the airstrikes in a remote area of northeastern Sudan emerged this week. If Israel were behind them, it would be a rare instance of the country taking military action beyond its borders to try to cut off the flow of arms to the Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would not comment on the reports. But outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday hinted Israel had carried out the strikes. “We operate everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure,” he said in a speech, without directly mentioning Sudan.
Earlier, Sudan’s State Minister for Transportation Mubarak Mabrook Saleem blamed the United States for the strikes, which he said took place a week apart in early February in a region near the Sudan-Egypt border. He said they hit smugglers trucks carrying weapons, but also trucks carrying African migrants seeking to sneak across the border.
U.S. officials denied involvement. On Friday, a senior Sudanese official noted the American denials, and said Khartoum suspects Israel in the attack.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because an official statement from the government on the subject was expected later Friday. The official didn’t elaborate on Israeli involvement.
Sudan’s army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohamed Osman Al-Aghbash, said the Sudanese Foreign Ministry had been in contact with Egypt and “all the concerned parties” about the strikes. But he refused to lay blame in an interview with an Islamic news web site, Islam Online, through which Sudanese officials frequently release information.
Details of the strikes remain unclear. Saleem and other Sudanese officials have spoken of casualties but have given conflicting numbers.
Al-Ray Al-Am, a Sudanese daily close to the government, reported Friday that more than 60 people were killed in the strikes, when three airplanes struck vehicles near the Sudanese-Egyptian border. It said 25 vehicles carrying migrants and weapons were destroyed.
The paper quoted unidentified Sudanese officials, but did not give the dates of the strikes or specify whether the figures were from a single strike or both. It said forensic teams picked up remains from the missiles, which are currently under investigation to determine their type.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Deng Alor told The Associated Press his country had no grounds to suspect American involvement in the attacks. Alor declined to pin the blame on Israel, saying investigation are still underway.
“We can’t confirm who (was behind it),” he said. Alor said two or three strikes hit smuggling routes in eastern Sudan. Alor condemned the smuggling, saying his country “can’t afford it.”
Arab and U.S. media reports said Israel was behind the attacks because the convoys were smuggling weapons to Egypt destined for Gaza. The militant Hamas, which rules Gaza, smuggles weapons in through tunnels along the Egyptian border. Israel waged a devastating 22-day offensive in Gaza this year trying to stop Hamas rocket fire against Israeli towns. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the assault, according to a Palestinian human rights group.
A new Egyptian newspaper, Al-Shurooq, was the first to report on Saleem saying two convoys trying to cross into Egypt were bombed by American jets. It said there were suspicions that the convoys carried weapons for Gaza.
In January, the U.S. signed an agreement with Israel calling for an international effort to stanch the flow of weapons to the Hamas, which trains them on Israel. Israel’s war in Gaza earlier this year was launched to stop near-daily rocket attacks on nearby Israeli communities and to stem the arms flow.
In recent years, Israel has been linked to an airstrike in Syria that the U.S. says destroyed a covert nuclear facility. It also has been accused to last year’s assassination of a top Hezbollah operative in a car bombing in Damascus. Israel has not confirmed either incident.