PM boasts of global reach after Sudan strike

Olmert alludes to alleged IAF strike in Sudan, says "Israel has never had stronger deterrence."

Olmert 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
While Jerusalem had no official comment Thursday on reports that either Israel or the US in January bombed one or more convoys carrying arms through Sudan for eventual delivery to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said there was "nowhere in the world" that Israel cannot reach. The attacks reportedly took place near Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. Senior Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil denied that the convoys were carrying arms bound for Gaza. "We operate everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure - in close places, in places further away, everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure, we hit them and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence," Olmert said at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "It was true in the north in a series of incidents and it was true in the south, in a series of incidents," he added. "There is no point in going into detail, and everybody can use their imagination. Those who need to know, know. And those who need to know, know that there is no place where Israel cannot operate. There is no place like that." "Israel has never had stronger deterrence than it has gained in the last few years," the prime minister said. Israel allegedly bombed a covert nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007, and last year was widely accused of the assassination of Hizbullah operative Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. While Olmert seemed to be hinting at Israeli involvement in the Sudan attacks, his spokesman Mark Regev reflected the government line, saying "It's not our practice to respond to every allegation out there in the media, not in this case, or in any case." On Thursday, Sudanese officials said foreign warplanes carried out two separate air strikes last month on Sudan near its border with Egypt, targeting convoys packed with light weapons and African migrants trying to sneak across the frontier. Mubarak Mabrook Saleem, Sudan's state minister for transportation, said he believed American planes were behind the bombings, which took place about a week apart in early February and claimed hundreds of lives. A Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed his account but said there were discrepancies on casualties. The US denied any air strike on Sudan. CBS news reported Wednesday that Israel was behind the attacks, which it said killed 39 people in 17 trucks. A new report by Sudanese sources also cited a strike on a ship, possibly making its way to Sudan from Iran. "There were indeed two strikes in Sudan, in January and February," Sudan's deputy transportation minister told Channel 10 on Thursday evening. "I cannot confirm that Israel or the US were behind the attack, but I know that the US controls the airspace there," he said. "The second strike was against a ship at sea and it was completely destroyed," another Sudanese official said. The allegations come after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant on March 4 for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. He's accused by the court of orchestrating a counterinsurgency against Darfur rebels that has involved rapes, killings and other atrocities against civilians. A new Egyptian newspaper, Al-Shurooq, was the first to report Tuesday on Saleem saying two convoys trying to cross into Egypt were bombed by American jets. It said there were suspicions that the convoys carried weapons for Gaza. According to Saleem, the first strike hit 16 vehicles carrying 200 people from various African countries being smuggled across the border. It also carried some "light weapons" such as Kalashnikovs for protection, he said. In the second attack on February 11, he said 18 vehicles were hit and they were only carrying immigrants, not weapons. He claimed several hundred people were killed in each bombing and said the first strike was about a week before the February 11 attack, but did not give a date. "The technology used in the attacks was so sophisticated, they must have been American," Saleem said. "This is the first time such an incident happens." A Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ali Youssef, confirmed the air strikes. "The incident took place," Youssef said. "There are discrepancies in casualties." He said the Sudanese government would soon release a statement to clarify what it knew. The US denied any recent air strikes in or around Sudan. "The US military has not conducted any air strikes, fired any missiles, or undertaken any combat operations in or around Sudan since the US Africa Command formally began operations October 1," said Vince Crawley, a spokesman for the command. The State Department's acting deputy spokesman, Gordon Duguid, also said Thursday that "nothing I have seen indicates any US involvement in this incident at all," when asked about possible US assistance in the raid. He declined to speculate on Israel participation in the strike, referring questions to the Israeli government. Duguid did, however, stress the importance America places on ending smuggling into Gaza. "We are concerned that weapons are being sent to Hamas," he said. "Smuggling has been a problem in the Gaza Strip, and that is one of the things that everyone is working to resolve, particularly the Egyptians are working to resolve, in order to help bring peace back to Gaza." In January, at the end of Operation Cast Lead, the US and Israel signed an agreement calling for an international effort to stanch the flow of weapons to Hamas. There was much talk at the time of the need to stem the arms flow before the weapons even reached the tunnels on the Sinai-Gaza border. Saleem said both air strikes came around 2 a.m. and in very foggy conditions in a barren, desert area. He acknowledged that both weapons and people were smuggled through Sudan to Egypt. Sudanese Foreign Minister Deng Alor, who accompanied President Bashir on a visit to Egypt on Wednesday, denied Sudan supplied Hamas with weapons and said he had no information about the strikes. An Egyptian security official said a weapons deal for Gaza was foiled before it reached Egypt. Brenda Gazzar, Haviv Rettig Gur and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.