KHARTOUM, Sudan – A Sudanese official said Thursday that hundreds of people were killed early this year when foreign warplanes bombed three convoys smuggling African migrants through Sudan along with weapons that were apparently destined for the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted at his air force’s possible involvement in the attacks. They came after Israel ended a 22-day assault on Gaza without fully achieving one of its aims: to choke off Hamas’ weapons supplies.
Israeli officials have warned that the militant Islamic group is seeking more powerful weapons than the crude Qassam rockets and Grad missiles it fires at Israeli communities.
An Israeli role in the Sudan bombings, if confirmed, would signal Israel’s determination to strike far beyond its borders to protect its security. It would also be seen as a warning to Hamas’ most powerful patron, Iran, which Israel and others fear is developing a nuclear weapon.
The bombings brought a new layer of tragedy to Sudan, a country already in the grip of an armed insurgency.
The victims were migrants from Sudan, Ethiopia and other African countries who were seeking a better life in Israel and Europe, and young men and boys working as porters and drivers for the smugglers.
Al Fatih Mahmoud Awad, a spokesman for Sudan’s transport ministry, said as many as 800 people died in the attacks in January and early February. He said more than a dozen vehicles made up each convoy.
Sudan’s transport minister, Mubarak Mabrook Saleem, discussed the attacks at a news conference in Khartoum earlier this week.
The news was not reported in the country’s newspapers, suggesting the government might be embarrassed to acknowledge that a foreign country could violate its sovereignty and air space so easily.
Saleem told the Associated Press that he believed the planes were American, but other officials said they were not identifiable.
The U.S. military on Thursday denied having made any recent airstrikes on Sudan.
Israel’s military refused to confirm or deny a role in any of the bombings.
But Olmert, speaking at an academic conference, said: “We operate everywhere we can hit terror infrastructure – in close places and in places farther away. Wherever we can hit terror infrastructure, we hit them, and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence.”