Friday, March 27, 2009

Israel bombs Sudan

The New York Times has revealed Israeli warplanes attacked a truck convoy in Sudan in January. There are also unconfirmed reports of a second attack in February. The Times says the first attack occurred to block a suspected arms delivery to Hamas in Gaza. Depending on which report you read, anywhere from 39 to 800 people were killed in the two attacks. The Times’ sources are two American officials privy to privy to classified intelligence assessments. They say Iran was smuggling weapons to Palestine via Sudan. Sudan has admitted the attacks took place but Israel has yet to formally take responsibility.

The story broke in the most unlikely way. The little known Mabrouk Mubarak Saleem, Sudan’s minister for highways, claimed earlier this week that a “major power” had carried out two previously unknown air strike inside Sudan – one on 27 January 27 and another on 11 February. His comments were reported by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Shurooq on Tuesday. They found a local angle saying “a major power bombed small trucks carrying arms” headed towards Sudan’s border with Egypt.

On Wednesday, the Iranian English language PressTV reported that America had carried out the attacks from a base in nearby Djibouti. It said Sudan had confirmed reports that the US Air Force conducted the January strike. It said 39 people were killed in the attack which occurred in the desert northwest of Port Sudan, near the Mount Al-Sha'anoon. It quoted Saleem’s claim that "major power bombed small trucks carrying arms, burring all of them. It killed Sudanese, Eritrean and Ethiopians [passengers] and injured others."

Today, Sudan changed its tune and said Israel was probably responsible. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig said the Sudanese were still gathering evidence at the site, and would not react while the investigation was ongoing. He claimed that the convoys were likely smuggling goods, but not weapons. "We contacted the Americans and they categorically denied they were involved," he said. "We are still trying to verify it. Most probably it involved Israel."

There are conflicting reports on casualties. The New York Times story repeated Saleem’s figure of 39 but they also quoted a second government spokesman who said more than a hundred were killed. However, the Los Angeles Times reported yet another Sudanese government source, Fatih Mahmoud Awad, a Transport Ministry spokesman, who said as many as 800 people died in the two attacks. He said each convoy had more than a dozen vehicles. It is possible that the reports are not conflicting and that the major casualties occurred in the February strike. However, very few details have emerged yet about the second attack.

Both the US and Israel had the motive to carry out the attack. Earlier this year Israel signed an agreement with the US in one of the last acts of the Bush administration. On 15 January, then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Washington to sign a memorandum of understanding to marshal an international effort to prevent arms from reaching Gaza. Under the terms of the agreement the US would organise “like-minded” countries to use methods such as interdiction to prevent arms from reaching Gaza.

The Sudanese strikes appear to be the first examples of interdiction. Israeli analysts called it a comfortable strike against a distracted enemy. Israeli security specialist and writer Gad Shimron said Sudan was a “pro-Hamas hostile state”, but was in no position to respond. They're in over their heads with Darfur; the last thing they need is further complications,” he told the Jerusalem Post. Shimron was with Mossad when they entered Sudan in the 1980s for Operation Moses to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel. "The air force knows this place [eastern Sudan] well. It flew at low altitudes there during Operation Moses," he said. "It's logical to assume that the weapons were tracked from the minute they left Iran.”

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to confirm Israeli involvement but gave a strong hint overnight when there was "nowhere in the world" that Israel cannot reach. Speaking at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, he said Israel operates everywhere where we can hit what he called “terror infrastructure”. These were to be found “in close places, in places further away, everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure,” he said. “We hit them and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence.” It is the closest yet that Israel has admitted to an act of war on Sudan.

Below is very brief footage Al-Jazeera acquired of the first bombing aftermath.

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