President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has warned Sudan, which has been accused of supporting an attempt to assassinate him in Ethiopia last week, against interfering with the flow of the River Nile.
A threat to withhold Nile waters was repeated by Sudanese officials after first being made by the radical cleric Sheikh Hassan Turabi, believed to be the power behind the Islamic regime installed in Sudan after the 1989 military coup by Omar el-Bashir. Egyptian and Western intelligence agencies accuse Sheikh Turabi of training and aiding Islamic terrorist groups. "Those who play with fire in Khartoum ... will push us to confrontation and to defend our rights and our lives," Mr Mubarak told Al-Akhbar newspaper.
He was supported by calls in state-controlled and opposition papers for a tougher line with Sudan. While war drums beat in Cairo, Khartoum has complained to the United Nations Security Council about alleged Egyptian attacks in the disputed Red Sea border area of Halaib, and asked for the Arab League to mediate. A claim yesterday by the radical Gamat el-Islamia group that it was behind the failed assassination attempt was dismissed by Egyptian officials as "the terrorists trying to get their friends in Khartoum off the hook''.
A Western diplomat in Cairo who recalled that Egyptian MPs called in 1989 for a proposed dam site on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia to be bombed, said: "The Egyptians are very concerned about the security of the Nile.'' It is feared Egypt might exploit the crisis to overthrow the Sudan regime, not only to counter the threat of subversion, but also to signal to other states that any encroachment on the Nile waters will not be tolerated.
When the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed in 1979 the late President Anwar Sadat said that "the only matter that would take Egypt to war again is water''.
In theory Khartoum could temporarily affect the flow of the Nile, and although this would have no practical effect on Egypt's Lake Nasser, which holds water for five years' use, the effect on Egyptian public opinion would be devastating.