TEL AVIV // Mystery last night surrounded the identities of two men killed in a suspected Israeli missile strike in Sudan.
One of the victims was the successor to Mahmoud al Mabhouh, the Hamas commander assassinated by a Mossad hit-squad in a Dubai hotel room last year, according to one report.
However, Sudan yesterday denied that the attack on a car near Port Sudan airport late on Tuesday had killed Hamas members. The two victims were both Sudanese, the foreign ministry said. Sudan blamed Tel Aviv for the attack and promised to report Israel to the UN Security Council.
Palestinian security officials named one of the victims as Abdel Latif al Ashkar, according to the Palestinian news agency Maan. They said al Ashkar had replaced al Mabhouh as director of Hamas's arms-smuggling operations after he was murdered in January 2010 by agents from the Israeli spy agency.
However, a Hamas official denied any connection to the two people killed in Sudan.
Sudan said the attack was a "desperate Israeli attempt to damage Sudan's image and link it to terrorism" in an attempt to scupper a bid to remove the country from the US's list of state sponsors of terror. Washington began the process this year after the relatively peaceful referendum in which the country's southern part voted for independence. Sudan hopes foreign investment would increase if it were removed from the terror list.
Sudanese officials have offered different versions of Tuesday's strike near Sudan's main oil export terminal. A state government official blamed the bombing on a foreign aircraft that flew in from the Red Sea. Sudanese police have claimed that the car was struck by a missile.
On Wednesday the Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti said: "This is absolutely an Israeli attack."
Israeli intelligence sources claimed yesterday that a truck carrying weapons, which was being escorted by the car, had been hit in the strike.
Ismail al Ashkar, a Palestinian politician, said Abdel Latif al Ashkar was his nephew, and had been present at the time of the attack but survived.
Israeli commentators said the strike came after accusations by Israeli defence officials that Sudan is letting Iran smuggle weapons through its territory in convoys via Egypt to the Gaza Strip.
Sudan has denied allowing weapons-smuggling through its territory.
The Haaretz daily Israeli newspaper wrote yesterday: "If Israel is responsible for the attack … it would appear to be another step in Israel's global campaign to stop Iranian arms smuggling into the region."
While the Israeli government has officially kept silent on Tuesday's strike, the US-based Time magazine quoted an Israeli military official as saying Israel was responsible. "It's not our first time there," he said.
Israeli media has reported that the Israeli air force has carried out at least two secret operations in Sudan in January and February 2009.
According to Haaretz, the two incidents include the bombing of a truck convoy carrying arms through Sudan to Gaza, in which 119 people were killed. In the second attack, a ship at a Sudanese port was bombed from the air.
Israel has often accused Iran of supplying the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as Syria and Lebanon's Shiite group Hizbollah, with weapons that are then used against Israel.
Israel appears to be stepping up its activities to curtail arms smuggling to Gaza. While Israel has not confirmed nor denied that it assassinated al Mabhouh in Dubai, it has been more open about other operations to curtail arms-smuggling.
The Palestinian engineer Dirar Abu Sisi, who was arrested by Israel in February after he was abducted from a train in Ukraine, was charged by Israel with developing missiles that Hamas used against Israel. Mr Abu Sisi is suspected by Israel of involvement in arms-smuggling activities between Hamas and Iran.
In mid-March Israeli naval commandos seized a cargo ship in the Mediterranean carrying what the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said were Iran-supplied weapons loaded in Syria and intended for Hamas in Gaza.
* With additional reporting by Reuters