KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan said on Friday it believed Israel was behind two attacks on suspected smuggler convoys which killed up to 40 people in the remote north of the country in January and February.
“The first thought is that it was the Americans that did it. We contacted the Americans and they categorically denied they were involved,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig said. “We are still trying to verify it. Most probably it involved Israel.”
His comments were the first official government acknowledgement of the strikes, first reported earlier this week in Egyptian Arabic-language newspaper el-Shorouk.
Sadig said one attack was thought to have taken place in the last week of January and one in mid-February.
“We didn’t know about the first attack until after the second one. They were in an area close to the border with Egypt, a remote area, desert, with no towns, no people,” he told Reuters.
Sudan was gathering evidence at the sites where the convoys were hit, he added.
“There is no proof they were carrying weapons. They were smuggling something, but the pickups were small. You don’t carry weapons in small pickups,” he said.
The New York Times on Friday quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying that Israeli warplanes attacked a convoy suspected of ferrying arms to Gaza during Israel’s offensive against Hamas.
Such a mission would have to breach multiple Egyptian checkpoints both in the Nile valley and the Sinai penisula, which analysts see as unlikely.
“I am sceptical that such a large number of arms, including long-range missiles, could pass through Egypt unnoticed,” said Issandr el-Amrani, a North Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“The implication is that Egypt is a major transit point ... for arms to Gaza. That is a huge allegation,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Thursday that Israel acted “wherever we can” to strike at its enemies, but did not specifically mention the attack in Sudan.
”If it was Israel then it is clear that they were acting on bad information that the vehicles were carrying arms,“ Sudan’s Sadig said. ”It is illegal to infringe the sovereignty of another country.
He said that Sudan would not react to the attacks while an investigation is ongoing. “We will reserve the right to react to this later. At the moment it is not confirmed it was Israel.”
Israeli newspapers speculated that the strike targeted longer-range missiles which they said Iran had shipped to Sudan for transfer to Gaza militants.
Israeli intelligence officials have long pointed to Sudan as a route for the import of munitions into the coastal enclave, including Chinese-made long-range rockets.
During Israel’s Gaza offensive, Hamas managed to strike targets in Israel up to some 50 km north of the territory. But the Islamist group that controls Gaza said it had failed to extend the range of its rockets beyond this.
The newspapers, relying on foreign reports, said that among the weapons Iran was trying to ship were rockets with a range of some 70 km (45 miles), which would put central Israel and the commercial capital, Tel Aviv, within range.
Additional reporting by Alastair Sharp in Cairo and Ori Lewis and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Dominic Evans