LONDON // Israel faced mounting diplomatic pressure last night to explain how fake passports in the names of six British citizens living in Israel were used by members of the gang who murdered the Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh in Dubai last month.
The Israeli ambassador to the UK was summoned to the foreign office as British MPs demanded immediate action to establish whether the Israeli government had played a role in obtaining the passports for the suspected killers. The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, promised a wide-ranging inquiry and the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency has been brought in to lead investigations into the misuse of British documents.
Of the 11 suspects for whom Dubai prosecutors have issued arrest warrants, six were identified as British, three as Irish, one French and one German. The Irish authorities said last night that their three passports bore genuine numbers but false identities. The Irish foreign minister, Micheal Martin, said: "We regard any activity which would jeopardise the integrity of the Irish passport as extremely serious." He said UAE authorities had begun sharing information on the case that "confirms that the passports used were fraudulent".
All six Britons whose passports were used live in Israel and hold dual citizenship. They bear little resemblance to the suspects and have expressed shock and anger that their identities were stolen. The leading British politician Sir Menzies Campbell, a senior member of the influential House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said: "If the Israeli government was party to behaviour of this kind it would be a serious violation of trust between nations. If legitimate British passport holders were put at risk it would be a disgrace. Given the current speculation, the Israeli government has some explaining to do."
Announcing the inquiry, Mr Brown said: "We have to carry out a full investigation. The evidence has to be assembled about what happened, about how it happened and why. The British passport is an important part of being British and we have to make sure everything is being done to protect it." Hugo Swire, a Conservative MP who is chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, also demanded a "full investigation". He said: "I would hope the British government is looking into it and demanding of the intelligence services in Israel and Dubai what evidence they have one way or another."
Mr Swire said that, in the circumstances, it would be "easy" to blame Mossad for the killing, but added: "These allegations against the Israeli government need to be answered. There needs to be a full investigation. "I have no evidence one way or another. I have read all the allegations and the denials. It is an easy allegation to make. "This is not something that can just be swept under the carpet because of the bad feeling it is going to create in the Arab world. You cannot conduct foreign policy at this extremely sensitive time by this sort of illegal behaviour."
Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said there was no proof of any Israeli involvement in the killing, though he did not deny the possibility, citing Israel's "policy of ambiguity" on such matters. "I don't know why we are assuming that Israel, or the Mossad, used those passports," he told Army Radio. "There is no reason to think that it was the Israeli Mossad, and not some other intelligence service or country up to some mischief."
A spokesman for the foreign office in London said that the investigation into how the passports were obtained was already under way. The Israeli embassy in London declined to comment. In Abu Dhabi yesterday, the British ambassador, Edward Oakden, and diplomatic representatives from the other nations involved in the investigation met with officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss "liason and co-operation" over the case.
Officials here and abroad from the countries whose passports were used by the gang have expressed surprise they were not alerted by Dubai Police about the possible involvement of their citizens. "We received the details of the British passports a few hours before the press conference on February 15," said Simon Goldsmith, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Dubai. He said they were then able to respond on the authenticity of the passports the following day.
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was awaiting developments in Dubai before deciding what further action could be taken. Both the French Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs first learnt of the allegations involving a French citizen through reports in the press. A spokesperson confirmed that the French passport in the name of Peter Elvinger was also faked. The Irish foreign ministry said it had received "new information" from UAE authorities about the passport numbers indicating that real Irish documents were used.
It added, however, that "the identities of the persons recorded on the forged passports do not correspond to those recorded on the valid passports carrying the same numbers" and that it was "urgently endeavouring to contact the three Irish citizens who hold or have held passports containing these numbers". If Mossad is found to be behind the attack, it would by no means be the first time the organisation has used foreign documents to ease its ability to travel - often leading to fierce diplomatic spats.
In 2004 New Zealand's prime minister imposed diplomatic sanctions - restricting visas and cancelling high level visits - after two Mossad agents were caught trying to acquire passports fraudulently - one in the name of a tetraplegic man. Seven years earlier, Mossad assassins carrying Canadian passports with assumed names attempted to murder the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal by spraying nerve agent into his ear as he entered his office in Amman.
The incident, which also took place when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, prompted Canada to recall its ambassador to Israel and left Jordanian-Israeli relations "on a knife edge" said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House. The fact that so many of the names announced by Dubai Police were of Israeli residents further points suspicion at Israel, according to Mr Mekelberg. "Using the identities of British-born Israelis does put a big question mark over Mossad," he said. "Presumably it would be easier for someone in the government to have the details."
Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the head of Dubai Police, said all the concerned countries had expressed their willingness to co-operate with the UAE, particularly after it was found that the suspects had faked passports from their countries. "These suspects should also be wanted to the countries which they forged their passports. We will be working jointly with these countries to reach to the suspects.
"We hope that we will be provided with all the necessary information regarding the suspects." Gen Tamim admitted that the embassies were not contacted until shortly before the identities of the suspects were revealed. "We wanted to complete the investigations and be sure of everything before we contacted the embassies." * additional reporting by Wafa Issa and Roland Hughes