updated 3/27/2009 3:57:54 PM ET 2009-03-27T19:57:54

Sudan said Friday it believes Israel carried out airstrikes on its soil last month that targeted weapons smugglers. If Israel were behind the attacks, it would mark a dramatic escalation in its attempts to cut off the flow of arms to Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said his country would not comment on the reports, but a day earlier Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted Israel did launch the February strikes, vowing that it would hit "terror infrastructure" wherever it is.

Stopping the flow of weapons to Hamas has been a top priority of Israel and the United States. But until now, Israel has focused mainly on blocking what is believed to be a main route — smuggling through tunnels under the border between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

During Israel's 22-day offensive against Hamas in Gaza this year, Israeli warplanes repeatedly pounded the tunnels on the Gaza side, destroying many, though most were quickly repaired. Negotiations on a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel have centered in part on installing measures to stop the smuggling.

The two airstrikes in February in a remote mountainous desert region of northeast Sudan, however, hit much further back in what Israeli officials believe is part of the supply line. Israel and the United States contend that Iran is the ultimate main source of Hamas' weapons, including rockets that militants have fired on southern Israeli towns.

Israeli intelligence officials say Sudan is a major route for Hamas weapons — not in quantity, but in quality, particularly Iranian-made anti-tank missiles and rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

Sudan denies sending weapons
The officials said it is not known whether the Sudanese government is implicated in the smuggling. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, and would not comment on whether Israel was behind the strikes.

The Sudanese government — a close ally of Iran and Hamas — denies sending weapons to Hamas. But Sudanese officials admit that smuggling is rife in its poorly patrolled border regions, including smuggling of African migrants and weapons. Some of those weapons, they acknowledge, likely head to Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Deng Alor told The Associated Press that the smuggling was "not good" for Sudan. He said it was possible that some of the weapons convoys hit in the strike "were destined to Gaza."

Word of the strikes emerges at a time when Sudan is already feeling international pressure. Earlier this month, an international court ordered the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes in the war in Darfur. The pressure makes Khartoum — which has cooperated with the U.S. on counterterrorism issues concerning al-Qaida — especially wary of now being accused of helping arm Hamas.

Details of the airstrikes remain unclear. Sudan's State Minister for Transportation Mubarak Mabrook Saleem said the strikes came about a week apart, with the second on Feb. 11, hitting convoys of smugglers trucks in an area near the Egyptian-Sudanese border and the Red Sea city of Port Sudan.

Saleem, who is from that region, said the first strike hit trucks carrying "small weapons," including automatic rifles, and African migrants. The vehicles hit in the second strike were only carrying migrants, he said, claiming that dozens of people were killed.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Sadiq said authorities had not known about the first strike because of the remote location, and learned of it only after discovering the second, because of wounded who reached hospitals.

'International image'
The United States was initially suspected, but in direct contacts with Khartoum, Washington denied any role, Sadiq told the Sudanese daily Akhbar al-Youm. Suspicion has now fallen on Israel, he told the paper.

U.S. officials have also publicly denied any role in the strikes.

A senior Sudanese official also told The Associated Press that the government now believes Israel was most likely suspect. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because an official government statement on the issue was expected later.

The strikes come after the United States and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding on Jan. 16, promising "new initiatives" to address arms smuggling to Hamas "including through the Mediterranean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and eastern Africa." The U.S. has also been working with Egypt to beef up counter-smuggling efforts on its border with Gaza.

Israel has reached beyond the border before against Hamas weapons: In 2002, it intercepted a ship called the Karine A in the Red Sea that it said was bringing rockets from Iran to Hamas. In January, Cyprus seized a Cypriot-flagged vessel, Monchegorsk, after the U.S. said it was suspected of carrying weapons from Iran to Gaza, via Syria. Cyprus removed a cargo of material that could be used for building munitions. Iran and Syria have denied it was sending weapons.

Retired Sudanese army general Mohammed al-Abbas said the strikes hit what is known to be a major smuggling route in Sudan. But he said he doubts Khartoum has a direct role in the weapons traffic, since "it is very concerned about its international image" amid the al-Bashir warrant and the Darfur conflict.

More likely, he said, it turned a blind eye to it, reasoning that the vast desert region is too remote to control anyway.

"There are many disembarkation areas along the Red Sea. It is very easy for boats to use, and it is used for smuggling, all kinds of things. ... It is easy and there are plenty of areas for unloading," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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