Europe condemns stolen identities used in al Mabhouh killing

Israel's foreign minister is pressed for answers as new pressure piles on Israel to explain use of fake passports.

LONDON // European foreign ministers last night strongly condemned the use of forged passports in the murder of a Hamas operative in a Dubai hotel last month. Israel was left in no doubt about the outrage over the theft of European citizens' identities by the gang who carried out the assassination. Meeting in Brussels, the foreign ministers said the killing "raises issues which are profoundly disturbing".

Their statement said: "We strongly condemn the use of fraudulent EU member states' passports and credit cards acquired through the theft of EU citizens' identities." Although the statement did not name Israel, all four countries whose citizens' identities were stolen - Britain, Ireland, France and Germany - have individually asked Israel for an explanation. And a European Union (EU) source said later: "It doesn't matter if it doesn't mention Israel, the message will be clear. How many countries can it be referring to?"

"It is important now that we fully support the investigation in Dubai," the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said. "Misuse of European passports is not to be tolerated." Meanwhile in Paris, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, unreservedly condemned the assassination. "It is an irrevocable condemnation. This kind of event can only increase tensions," he said. The EU's strong stance was welcomed last night by the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed. He said: "We will continue to work with the EU in this investigation, which has highlighted that the defrauding of passports is an infringement of national sovereignty as well as international law."

The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was also in Brussels yesterday, repeated his country's insistence that there was no evidence against either Israel or its intelligence service, Mossad. But in private meetings later he was pressed for answers by the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, and his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin. Mr Miliband said: "I set out the seriousness of the issue to Britain and the need for Britain and Israel to co-operate, and the importance of the investigation the prime minister, Gordon Brown, has announced, and the importance we attach to Israeli co-operation with that investigation. It is very important that people know that we continue to take this issue very seriously indeed.

"Mr Lieberman said he had no information at this stage." But another Israeli minister told a meeting at the House of Commons in London yesterday that the Dubai killing should not be regarded as a murder. Yuli Edelstein, Israel's public diplomacy minister, told a meeting of a political think tank that it would be wrong to become "overly emotional". "Even if it will turn out that the worst secret service of the worst country in the world had managed to get to that guy, I will still not call it murder," he said.

The Hamas operative Mahmoud al Mabhouh was murdered in his hotel room in Dubai on January 19. Last Monday Dubai Police broadcast dramatic closed-circuit TV and surveillance video footage of the hit-squad who carried out the assassination, and named 11 suspects - six with British passports, three Irish, one French and one German. It emerged that the gang had stolen the identities of innocent people, at least seven of whom hold dual nationality and live in Israel.

Earlier yesterday, Alan Johnson, the British home secretary, confirmed in a written statement to parliament that the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency was investigating the "apparent use of counterfeit passports" by the killers. Police forces in all four European nations involved, as well as Austria, which could have been a telecommunications base for the assassins, are co-operating with investigators in Dubai to try to identify the killers, who could number 17 or more.

British authorities also disclosed last night that two more UK passports - bringing the total to eight - were used by the killers. The foreign office minister Chris Bryant repeated the British government's insistence that it had no prior knowledge of the killing or the use of the passports.