SUDAN WATCH: Unidentified aircraft destroyed suspected arms convoy in E. Sudan last January (Update 4)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Unidentified aircraft destroyed suspected arms convoy in E. Sudan last January (Update 4)

Reuters report by Andrew Heavens in Khartoum, Thursday, 26 March, 2009:
Aircraft destroyed suspected Sudan arms convoy - officials
KHARTOUM, March 26 (Reuters) - Unidentified aircraft attacked a convoy of suspected arms smugglers as it drove through Sudan toward Egypt in January, killing almost everyone in the convoy, two senior Sudanese politicians said on Thursday.

The politicians, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters the strike took place in a remote area in east Sudan but did not say who carried it out.

Media reports in Egypt and the United States have suggested U.S. or Israeli aircraft may have carried out the strike. Sudan's foreign minister Deng Alor told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday he had no information on any attack.

Any public confirmation of a foreign attack would have a major impact in Sudan, where relations with the West are already tense following the International Criminal Court's decision this month to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of Darfur war crimes.

Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Shorouk quoted "knowledgeable Sudanese sources" this week as saying aircraft from the United States were involved in the strike, which it said killed 39 people.

The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum on Thursday declined to comment. Sudan remains on a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, but the State Department has said that Sudan is cooperating with efforts against militant groups.

U.S.-based CBS News, however, reported on its website on Wednesday that its security correspondent had been briefed that Israeli aircraft had carried out an attack in eastern Sudan, targeting an arms delivery to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.

A senior Israeli defence official on Thursday described the report as nonsense.

The two Sudanese politicians who knew about the January attack said it was still unclear where the aircraft came from. But one of the sources, a senior politician from eastern Sudan, said his colleagues had spoken to a survivor of the raid.

"There was an Ethiopian fellow, a mechanic. 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. There were four or five vehicles," he said.

The politician added that the route, in a desert region northwest of Port Sudan on the Red Sea cost, was regularly used by groups smuggling weapons into Egypt.

"Everyone knows they are smuggling weapons to the southern part of Egypt," he said.

The second Sudanese politician, an official in the capital Khartoum, said the attack had become an open secret in the remote part of eastern Sudan where it happened.

He said that as recently as two weeks ago, representatives of an Arab tribe had made an official appeal to government authorities for the return of the bodies of more than 30 people killed in the raid. The official said he could not speculate on why the Sudanese government was not confirming the attack took place.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Khaled Abdelaziz in Khartoum; Editing by Dominic Evans)
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Mubarak calls for humanitarian assistance to victims of east attacks
Source: Miraya FM via ReliefWeb
Date: Friday, 27 March 2009:
The State Minister of Transport and a senior member of eastern Sudan Free Lions' Front, Ma'brook Mubarak Salim, has called for humanitarian assistance to victims of February air strikes in Eastern Sudan. Salim said the attack, which left (200) widows and orphaned (600), is a crime against humanity as he puts it.

Speaking to Miraya FM Salim said the victims were attacked early morning on eleventh of February this year.

He added that the victims where trying to immigrate to Europe through Egypt.
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How Israel Foiled an Arms Convoy Bound for Hamas
By TIME STAFF Monday, March 30, 2009
By Nili Bassan / EPA
Israeli fighter-bombers, backed by unmanned drones, were responsible for a mid-January attack on a 23-truck convoy in the Sudanese desert carrying arms to Hamas militants, two highly-placed Israeli security sources revealed to TIME. The attack was a warning to Iran and other adversaries, showing Israel's intelligence capability and its willingness to mount operations far beyond its borders in order to defend itself from gathering threats.

The sources revealed exclusive details about the bold air attack on what they said was an Iranian weapons convoy, which had been transporting rockets and explosives destined for Gaza during the Israeli assault on the small Palestinian territory. They denied earlier news reports that U.S. aircraft had been involved in the attack on the arms convoy as it crossed at night through the Sudanese desert heading for Egypt's poorly guarded border. "The Americans were notified that Israel was going to conduct an air operation in Sudan, but they were not involved," a source said. He denied prior claims by a U.S. television network that a ship and a second convoy were destroyed. "There was only one raid, and it was a major operation," he said, adding that "dozens of aircraft" were used. (See pictures of the recent Gaza conflict)

F-16 fighter-bombers carried out two runs on the convoy, while F-15 fighter planes circled overhead as a precaution in case hostile aircraft were scrambled from Khartoum or a nearby country. After the first bombing run, drones mounted with high-resolution cameras passed over the burning trucks. The video showed that the convoy had only been partially damaged, so the Israelis ordered a second pass with the F-16s. During the 1,750-mile (2800 km) journey to Sudan and back, the Israeli aircraft refueled in midair over the Red Sea. (See pictures of violence in Sudan.)

The bombing raid came after an intelligence tip-off. In early January, at the height of Israel's assault on Gaza, Israel's foreign intelligence agency Mossad was told by an informant that Iran was planning a major delivery of 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, including anti-tank rockets and Fajir rockets with a 25 mile range and a 45 kg warhead. With little time to plan the operation, naval vessels and helicopters were rushed to the Red Sea in case Israel had to rescue a downed pilot, and the plan was rushed through. "The Israelis had less than a week to pull this all together," a source said.

The Iranian shipment was bound for Port Sudan. From there, according to the security sources, the Iranians had organized a smuggler's convoy of 23 trucks that would take the weapons across Egypt's southern border and up into the Sinai. Hamas would then take charge of the weapons and smuggle them into Gaza through the tunnels unscathed by Israeli bombardments. (See pictures of Gazans digging out.)

It was a route used occasionally by Hamas, but never before on such a large scale, sources said. "This was the first time that the Iranians had tried to send Hamas a shipment this big via Sudan — and it is probably the last," he said. Several Iranians were killed in the raid, along with Sudanese smugglers and drivers, the source claimed. "No doubt the Iranians are checking back to see who might have leaked this to the Israelis," he said.

Even if the shipment had reached Gaza, it's doubtful that it would have changed the outcome of the battle, in which Israeli forces sliced into the heart of the Palestinian enclave, killing over 1,300, many of them civilians. But the deadly new armaments and missiles would almost certainly have raised the Israeli death toll, both among soldiers and civilians living within the range of the Fajir rockets. Eleven Israelis died during the Gaza offensive. (See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.)

One Hamas official, while not denying that the arms convoy was theirs, said it numbered only 15 trucks and was laden with fewer weapons than the Israeli source claims. "The Israelis are trying to overplay the quantity of arms as a way to justify this raid, and to mobilize the Europeans to crack down on smugglers in the Mediterranean," he said. In January, Cypriot authorities seized an Iranian freighter that the U.S. and Israel claim was shipping arms to Hamas in Gaza. (See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.)

Israel never officially admits to carrying out overseas actions against its foes, but it is suspected of sending planes to destroy a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, and is also blamed for the Damascus car bomb killing in February last year of Hizballah military commander Imad Mugniyeh. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will step down on Tuesday, hinted that Israel was behind the Sudan raid, saying: "We operate in many places near and far, and carry out strikes in a manner that strengthens our deterrence."

Meanwhile, the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat reported on Monday that a few days before the alleged Israeli raid, a senior U.S. official warned Sudan to stop smugglers from bringing weapons to Hamas in Gaza, but Sudan failed to comply. (See TIME's Pictures of the Week.)

A Hamas security official contacted by TIME waved off Israeli reports that the destruction of the weapons convoy was a major setback to the Islamic militants who govern Gaza. "We have our own 'home delivery' set-up for weapons," he said with a laugh, explaining that Sinai's tribes of Bedouin smugglers are still bringing arms to the many secret tunnels snaking into Gaza. This is no idle boast. On Sunday, a senior Israeli security chief told Olmert's cabinet that since Israel ended its 22-day offensive in Gaza on Jan. 1, Hamas had smuggled in 22 tons of explosives and "tens" of rockets, readying for another round of fighting. Israeli officials can breathe easier knowing that the longer-range fajir missiles did not get through. Iran and Hamas, no doubt, will try again.
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From The Economist print edition
A mysterious air raid on Sudan - A battle between two long arms
April 02, 2009
The shadow-boxing between Israel and Iran moves from Gaza to Sudan

GIVEN the ferocity of Israel’s onslaught on the Islamist militants of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the first three weeks of January, it stands to reason that Israel would also be doing everything in its power to stop them getting more weapons. Only now is a murky story emerging of how far (about 1,400km, or 870 miles) Israel was prepared to go.

“Who needs to know, knows,” said Ehud Olmert, Israel’s outgoing prime minister, thereby tacitly confirming a flurry of media reports that Israeli aircraft and/or unmanned drones had destroyed a convoy of 23 lorries carrying Iranian arms destined for Hamas in mid-January in north-east Sudan. After some confusion, the Sudanese government admitted that such an attack, “probably” by Israel, had indeed taken place just north of Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Exotic but unverifiable claims in various media aver that Israel’s Mossad intelligence service got a tip that the arms were going to be smuggled into the Gaza Strip via Sudan and Egypt; that Israel’s air force had only a few days to prepare its raid; and that 40 or so people in the convoy, including Iranians, may have been killed.

Israel’s aim is said to have been to stop Hamas acquiring Iranian Fajr rockets, designed to be stripped down and carried in parts through the tunnels from Egypt into Gaza, from where their range of at least 40km would have given Hamas a longer reach than its homemade Qassam rockets or the Grad rockets it has already smuggled in and fired at Israel. A secondary aim may have been to remind Iran of Israel’s own “long arm”, and that Israel may one day dare to use it against Iran’s nuclear programme. In September 2007, in another raid Israel confirmed only by nods and winks, it destroyed what America said later was a secret nuclear reactor being built with North Korean help in Syria.

Iran and Sudan have had close links ever since Sudan’s Islamic revolution of 1989, which brought the present government of Omar al-Bashir to power and was inspired by the Iranian version a decade earlier. Hassan al-Turabi, the Islamist ideologue who organised the coup that installed Mr Bashir, explicitly sought a Sunni version of Iran’s Shia revolution, complete with Revolutionary Guards, severe dress codes and sharia courts. Mr Turabi hoped to cast himself as an Ayatollah Khomeini of east Africa.

Despite doctrinal differences between the two countries, Iran swiftly recognised a useful ally in an unfriendly neighbourhood. As a token of friendship, Iran’s then president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, visited Khartoum in 1991, along with no fewer than 157 officials. Under agreements signed during Mr Rafsanjani’s visit, Iran agreed to help train Sudan’s version of the Revolutionary Guards, the Popular Defence Forces. To this end Hassan Azda, an Iranian who had been training Hizbullah fighters in Lebanon, was posted to Sudan in 1992.

Iran also helped to set up Sudan’s fledgling arms industry, now the third-largest in Africa. The missiles that Israel is said to have destroyed in the January raid were probably shipped into Port Sudan via Yemen from Iran. But it is also possible that some of the arms were manufactured not in Iran but in Sudan’s own military-industrial complex south of Khartoum. The Iranian defence minister spent four days in Khartoum last year, where he signed another co-operation agreement “in the fields of military technology and the exchange of expertise and training”, according to a Sudanese newspaper.

Apart from technical help, Iran and Sudan support each other in diplomacy. The Sudanese have backed Iran in its confrontation with the United Nations over its nuclear programme, and Iran has supported President Bashir in his own confrontation with the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which wants him arrested for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Israel’s raid, however successful in stopping the convoy bound for Gaza, will have done nothing to weaken, and may have strengthened, the bond between these two governments.
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Update: See Sudan Watch April 05, 2009: Africa Confidential heard that another arms convoy was moving north near Red Sea coast and Egyptian forces were moving to Sudan border to block it


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