Al Mabhouh 'survived two previous hits'

Mahmoud al Mabhouh faced two previous assassination attempts, say Hamas officials.

DUBAI // Mahmoud al Mabhouh faced two previous assassination attempts in recent years, Hamas officials said yesterday. They said the Hamas operative was poisoned last year and, earlier, was the target of a shooting in Lebanon. Dubai Police released a hospital report yesterday showing that al Mabhouh was treated at Rashid Hospital in May last year. The report said al Mabhouh was suffering from dizziness and was half-conscious when he was admitted, but had no fever. X-rays showed a lung infection. He was treated with antibiotics and released on May 10.

"We always lived with the possibility that al Mabhouh could be killed at any time due to the sensitivity of his job," said Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in Lebanon and a relative of al Mabhouh. Another senior Hamas official said there had been at least two previous attempts on al Mabhouh's life, one in Lebanon by shooting, the other in Dubai by poisoning. Khalid Arif, a Fatah official, said there had been many assassinations over the years that had not drawn international attention.

He applauded the efforts of Dubai Police to bring al Mabhouh's killers to justice. "This time around, they underestimated the UAE and picked the wrong country to kill their target in," Mr Arif said. Police have linked 26 forged passports to the January 19 assassination. Yesterday, Australia joined Germany, France, Ireland and Britain as nations whose travel documents had been forged for use in the operation.

Stephen Smith, the Australian foreign minister, summoned the Israeli ambassador, Yuval Rotem, to discuss the apparent "fraudulent" use of three passports. They were in the names of Australians believed to be living in Israel - Joshua Daniel Bruce, Adam Korman and Nicole McCabe. "The Australian government is very gravely concerned that these Australian passports appear to have been used fraudulently," Mr Smith told the Australian parliament.

Mr Smith said he had made it clear to Mr Rotem that the Australian government "regards this as a matter of the gravest concern". However, he stressed the investigation was in its early stages. "I made it crystal clear to the ambassador that if the results of that investigation cause us to come to the conclusion that the abuse of Australian passports was in any way sponsored or condoned by Israeli officials, then Australia would not regard that as the act of a friend," Mr Smith told journalists.

Australian officials said they would be providing "consular assistance" to the three Australians and their families. Although the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, has not been definitively linked to the assassination, the Dubai Police Chief, Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, has said he was "99 per cent" certain of its involvement. The Israeli government has said there is no evidence tying Mossad to the killing.

But Gen Tamim said the investigation had traced all the suspects back to Israel. "The perpetrators are in Israel and all the countries which have had their sovereignty violated must work together to arrest them," he said. He said he was requesting an arrest warrant to be issued for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, but added that the final decision would be made by the Public Prosecution.

Two Palestinians are in police custody and a third - identified yesterday as a senior Hamas official - was being questioned in Syria, police said. "It is a routine investigation procedure as he is one of the last officials from Hamas to be in touch with al Mabhouh before he was killed," said a Hamas official. "He is being questioned and is not detained." Police have said the operation to kill al Mabhouh began last year, when several suspects using fraudulent passports, travelled to Dubai.

Two of the suspects, using the names Korman and McCabe, then travelled to Iran. On January 18, more operatives trickled into the city, arriving at different times and staying at different hotels. When al Mabhouh arrived on January 19 at about 3pm, a surveillance team was waiting for him at the airport, police said. Various elements of the hit squad tracked him as he checked into room 230 of the Al Bustan Rotana, went shopping and then returned.

Within minutes of coming back to the hotel, the assassination team killed him, then arranged it to look as though nothing unnatural had occurred. The door was allegedly chained and the "do not disturb" sign was hung on the door. By the time the body was discovered on January 20, police say, everyone involved in the killing had flown out of the country. Notices for the arrests of the original 11 suspects were posted on Interpol's website last night. The 15 new suspects had not yet appeared. * With additional reporting by Zoi Constantine