Clone wars: Mossad's London chief expelled over forged passports

New details are revealed showing how Israeli security services stole British citizens' identities. Foreign Office advises travellers to Israel that they risk having their passports cloned

Britain has expelled Mossad's most senior official in London after concluding there was compelling evidence that UK passports used by a hit squad in Dubai were cloned by Israel. The Independent has learnt that the documents were cloned at Ben Gurion airport, and officials then made follow-up calls to check surreptitiously that the travel plans of those whose identities had been stolen would not interfere with the assassination.

"Such misuse of British passports is intolerable," the Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Parliament. "The fact that this was done by a country which is a friend, with significant diplomatic, cultural, business and personal ties to the UK, only adds insult to injury." In an unusual move last night, the Foreign Office also updated its travel advice for Israel, warning would-be visitors of the perils of passport cloning. "We recommend that you only hand your passport over to third parties including Israeli officials when absolutely necessary," the travel bulletin said.

In Israel, the official response to London's action was notably terse. "The relationship between Britain and Israel is mutually important," the foreign ministry said. "We therefore regret the British decision." But in other quarters there was undisguised fury. "I think [the] British are behaving hypocritically and I don't want to offend dogs on this issue, since some dogs are utterly loyal. [But] Who are they to judge us on the war on terror?" said Aryeh Eldad of Israel's National Religious Party.

The row marked another chapter of friction between Israel and its Western allies. Relations with Washington were reported to be at a 35-year low, following the Israeli government's announcement of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem while US Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting. The fact that yesterday's meeting at the White House between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama was held behind closed doors was interpreted as another sign that tempers have not fully calmed.

While Mr Miliband refused to divulge the name and job title of the diplomat who was given his marching orders, it is believed to be the Mossad head of station in London. Dubai authorities have already accused Mossad of being behind the assassination in a luxury hotel of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in January. With the diplomatic expulsion yesterday, Britain has effectively made the same accusation.

The results of the investigation by the UK's Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) remained under wraps last night, but The Independent understands that the passports of 12 people were cloned after they were taken away from their owners at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv for up to 30 minutes, so that "immigration officials" could carry out "checks".

It is also believed that subsequently, some of the passport holders received telephone calls in the weeks before the Dubai assassination, from officials purportedly seeking to arrange appointments to discuss immigration issues. The officials went on to ask them about upcoming travel plans and when they would not be available.

All but one of the victims have now been issued with biometric passports, which are a safeguard against cloning. The final individual will receive his in the next week.

The Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons that forgeries were of a "high quality". "Given that this was a very sophisticated operation, the Government judges it is highly likely that the forgeries were made by a state intelligence service," he said. "Taking this together with other inquiries, and the link with Israel established by Soca, we have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of the British passports."

Diplomats were quick to note the reference to "other inquiries" – fuelling speculation that the UK had other intelligence-based information about the episode. According to diplomatic sources US officials were told of the decision to carry out the expulsion and had no objection to the strong British stance, a reflection, it is believed, of Washington's exasperation with the Netanyahu government over the East Jerusalem settlements.

Mr Miliband had been due to attend a ceremony at the Israeli embassy yesterday evening, but he pulled out in what was widely perceived as another sign of British displeasure.

But the UK has desisted from taking more wide-ranging punitive steps. In 1987, after the arrest in Hull of a Palestinian working for Mossad and acting as an agent provocateur, Margaret Thatcher demanded that all Mossad operations in the UK should stop.

And it was clear last night that Israel was not planning a retaliatory expulsion of a British diplomat – despite calls from Knesset member Mr Eldad, to do so. Tzahi Hanegbi, the chairman of the Knesset's influential Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, and a member of opposition leader Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party said: "I believe that Israel's abstaining from giving any kind of response at the height of the Dubai crisis was right. Now that the height of the crisis is behind us, it is certainly all the more logical to refrain from making matters worse."

Mr Miliband stressed that Britain would "continue to work closely with Israel on a range of issues, notably the Iranian nuclear threat" but added "that co-operation must be based on transparency and trust".

He said he had demanded, and received, an assurance from Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, that Israel would never again use British passports for clandestine operations. However, William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, pointed out that a previous Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, had given a similar undertaking after an Israeli embassy diplomatic pouch was found in a German telephone callbox with fake British passports. "It would seem those assurances have not been upheld," said Mr Hague.

The Dubai hit-squad also used fake German, French, Irish and Australian passports. Mr Miliband said he had spoken in the past 24 hours with the foreign ministers of those countries.

Timeline: Dubai murder case

January 19 Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is assassinated in Dubai. The suspects fly out within hours.

January 20 Hotel staff find Mabhouh's body. Hamas says he died of a sudden illness.

January 29 Mabhouh is buried near Damascus. A senior Hamas official accuses Israel of involvement in his death. Dubai police say Mossad involvement is possible.

February 15 Dubai police announce that they are seeking 11 people with European passports, and provide CCTV footage and passport photos of the suspects.

February 16-17 Original passport holders deny involvement and say their identities have been stolen. Israeli foreign minister says there is no proof of Mossad involvement. Gordon Brown promises a full investigation of the misuse of British passports.

February 18 Britain and Ireland summon Israeli ambassadors. Dubai's chief says for the first time that he is almost certain Israel was behind the killing.

February 22 As Avigdor Lieberman meets with European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, the EU condemns fraudulent use of passports.

February 24 15 more suspects identified by Dubai police, bringing total to 26.

February 27 SOCA investigators arrive in Tel Aviv to interview victims of identity theft.

March 9 27th suspect identified.

March 23 David Miliband announces Israeli diplomat will be expelled over use of forged passports.