The hit squad who killed a Hamas leader in Dubai six weeks ago injected him with a strong sedative before suffocating him in his hotel room, post-mortem results have revealed. Dubai Police said yesterday that toxicology tests on Mahmoud al Mabhouh revealed traces of succinylcholine, a fast-acting muscle relaxant that causes temporary paralysis and would have made it impossible for him to struggle against his assassins.
The latest revelations about the killing - widely attributed to Israel's Mossad spy agency - came as Dubai Police announced that European passports would come under greater scrutiny by immigration officials. The assassins entered the UAE on forged passports belonging to four European countries and Australia. Many of the identities they assumed belonged to dual nationals who live in Israel. Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the head of Dubai Police, said "new technologies" would be introduced at airports and border crossings to examine European passports and ensure their authenticity. These would be devices to detect sophisticated forgeries.
Meanwhile in Israel, Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a government minister, said the operation against al Mabhouh "was not a failure" and that mounting criticism in Israel and internationally was unjustified. Mr Ben Eliezer, a member of Israel's inner security cabinet, made his remarks as two separate investigations, by Britain and Australia, threatened to further embarrass Israel by tying Mossad to the misuse of the two countries' passports.
British detectives in Tel Aviv said over the next few days they would interview six dual nationals whose names were used by the assassins, while Australia's security services were reported to be in the advanced stages of an investigation into three Australian-Israelis they believe have been working for Mossad. Al Mabhouh's murder in a Dubai hotel room on January 19 is believed to have been carried out by a large assassination squad travelling on fraudulently obtained or forged passports from Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and Australia.
The number of suspects increased to 27 yesterday as police revealed another person had been identified, though they did not disclose details. Two Palestinians are also in detention - one of whom is said by Dubai police to have a clear connection to the assassins. The drug used by the hit squad would have ensured al Mabhouh remained conscious as he was suffocated. "This substance is usually very difficult to trace as it dissolves into the body and turns to hormones which already exist naturally in the human body," said Maj Gen Khamis al Mazeina, deputy head of Dubai Police. "But because it was injected in substantial amounts, the full quantity did not dissolve and we were able to trace it."
Hamas officials had earlier said al Mabhouh had survived a previous assassination attempt in Dubai last year, but Gen al Mazeina denied the claims. In announcing new border controls, Gen Tamim said: "European passports, previous to the al Mabhouh case, did not undergo heavy scrutiny, as we knew that they are very difficult to forge and they enjoyed high level of credibility, but now they will be heavily examined."
He said he hoped to co-ordinate with European countries to ensure that fraudulent passports would be detected more efficiently, including by accessing a database to verify passport numbers without infringing on travellers' personal information. Gen Tamim said police would also train passport control officers at the airport to better identify potential Mossad agents to prevent them from entering Dubai.
"Among the things we will train our people is to identify Israeli names, accents as well as features," he said. "Israel has proved that it is a country that does not respect laws and always violates others' sovereignty, including what it calls friendly nations, and we need to make sure that they do not violate our sovereignty." Gen Tamim said that, although the misuse of European passports had undermined the credibility of these passports, visa procedures for Europeans would not be tightened.
Gen Tamim, who has said he is "99 per cent certain" that Mossad carried out the hit, called the spy agency a "dinosaur with old-fashioned thinking" because it had failed to take into account the role of modern technology. Yesterday, in remarks that hinted at a growing defensiveness on the part of the Israeli government, Mr Ben Eliezer rejected the growing criticism surrounding the killing. Several Israeli commentators have suggested that the drip-drip of revelations tying Israel to the affair, and the threat to which the 26 agents and the Israeli citizens whose identities they assumed have been exposed, were a price not worth paying.
Mr Ben Eliezer responded: "What is there to criticise? Right now all I'm interested in from this tsunami is one simple thing. Is he dead or alive? And the answer to that is clear." He added: "The [Hamas] organisation knows one thing - there is no one who cannot be caught up with or who cannot be reached. For me, this is deterrence." The Israeli government's discomfort, however, may grow in the coming days.
Two British investigators from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) have arrived in Israel to begin interviews with six of the 12 British-Israeli dual nationals whose names were found on forged passports used by the hit squad. A British Embassy spokesman, Rafi Shamir, said the six would be interviewed as witnesses to a crime and would not be questioned as suspects. A Soca official said Israel had been informed and had "no issue" with the interviews.
The six Britons - Paul Keeley, James Clarke, Michael Barney, Jonathan Graham, Melvyn Mildiner and Stephen Hodes - will be interviewed at the embassy in Tel Aviv when they come in to receive their new passports. All have claimed that their identities were stolen. Mr Keeley's wife, Sima, told The National yesterday that the family had only learnt of the British detectives' arrival that morning, after seeing reports in the local media.
"The police haven't been in contact yet but we're expecting their call soon," she said. Although yesterday was a normal working day in Israel, the embassy observes the British weekend and was not due to open again until today. Mrs Keeley, who lives with her husband in a small coastal community in northern Israel, said her husband was still "very upset" about the misuse of his passport. They were hoping to learn more about what had happened when he met the investigators, she said.
Mr Shamir said the other six British-Israelis - whose identities were revealed only last week - would be interviewed at a later date. * The National