Israel carried out air strikes in January on a convoy moving through Sudan which it believed to be carrying weapons destined for Hamas in Gaza, according to a report by the US television network CBS.
Two Sudanese politicians yesterday confirmed that unidentified aircraft targeted the convoy in a remote desert region north-west of Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast.
The outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, appeared to fuel speculation that his country's air force was behind the attack, which reportedly killed 39 people, when he said that "Israel hits every place it can in order to stop terror, near and far". CBS reported that Israeli intelligence had learnt of plans to move weapons north through Sudan into Egypt and then smuggle them into the Gaza Strip to Hamas. The report said that those killed were manning the 17-vehicle convoy, although a number of civilians had also been injured in the attack, which occurred in the same month as Israel's offensive in Gaza.
While Israeli defence officials had earlier appeared to pour cold water on the report that their aircraft had carried out the attack, Mark Regev, the spokesman for Mr Olmert, would only say that it was not Israel's practice "to respond to these sort of allegations when they arise in the press".
Interdiction of the convoy would certainly chime with Israeli intelligence warnings in the past that weapons destined for Hamas in Gaza were being shipped from Iran through the Persian Gulf and on to Sudan. Whether or not the attacks were carried out by Israeli warplanes, they appear to have been in the spirit of an agreement signed in the closing days of the Gaza offensive by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and the outgoing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, aimed at curbing arms traffic into Gaza.
The aims of the accord are thought not to have been confined to tightening controls on the Egypt/Gaza border itself but to have also referred to measures needed to stop Iranian-derived arms along earlier sections of the route.
As part of the post-war efforts to halt the arms smuggling, an international conference has been called in Ottawa for May – to be attended by Canada, the US, Israel, Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Denmark.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the conference, the third to have taken place since the Gaza offensive, will be followed by a "war game" in Washington in which an international group of security officials will practise scenarios of foiling arms traffic from Iran to Gaza.
One of the Sudanese politicians claimed that there were "four orfive vehicles" in the convoy that had been hit, as opposed to the 17 cited in the CBS report, and that his colleagues had spoken to a witness. "There was an Ethiopian fellow, a mechanic," he said. "He was the only one who survived. He said they came in two planes. They passed over them then came back and they shot the cars. He couldn't tell the nationality of the aircraft. The aircraft destroyed the vehicles".
*The Israel Defence Forces produced figures of its own last night for Palestinian casualties during the Gaza offensive. It said that among the 1,166 Palestinians killed, 709 had been identified as "Hamas terror operatives, among them several from various other terror organisations". Another 162 men have not been yet attributed to any organisation, while 295 "uninvolved Palestinians" had died, including 89 minors and 49 women.
The numbers are at marked variance with those collected by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. It says 1,417 Palestinians died, including 926 civilians – 313 of whom were minors.