On Tuesday, the new Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Shuruq carried a story that American aircraft had attacked an arms convoy northwest of Port Sudan, killing 39 people, and destroying 17 trucks. The convoy was supposedly carrying arms to Hamas in Gaza. To see the original article in Arabic go to this site and download the March 24 issue (very large Acrobat file; needs to be downloaded and doesn't seem to let me link directly). A short English summary is here. The story sounded rather wild and, like The Arabist at the second link, I didn't particularly buy it. If the US wanted to take out a convoy of trucks in Sudan, I think we'd have used Predators or helicopters operating off ships in the Red Sea; I don't see us using combat aircraft from a carrier or from Djibouti. I know we may be operating from Djibouti from French bases against pirates in the Red Sea (I know we may be, I don't know that we are), but this just didn't sound right. In my old newsletter The Estimate I had a column called "Coffeehouse Gossip" devoted to just this kind of unsourced wild stories. I don't have a similar function here yet, but may need one. Anyway, I initially left this unsourced story alone.
Then a Sudanese official — the Minister of State for Highways — (huh?: since when does he do international diplomatically sensitive stuff?) came out yesterday and announced that "A major power bombed small trucks carrying arms – burning all of them. It killed Sudanese, Eritreans, and Ethiopians and injured others."
Then the story took a new turn when the US network CBS (a lot more credible source than some of those in play up to then) reported, via its verteran (and well-informed) defense correspondent David Martin that an unnamed US official says it was an Israeli operation, in the context of an international effort to block arms smuggling into Gaza.
This version is a lot more credible I think. The US might operate from the French airbase in Djibouti, but if we have ground attack aircraft based in Djibouti (as opposed to anti-piracy forces) I'm not sure we'd want to reveal their presence with a strike on Sudan.
An Israeli strike makes more sense. Operating from their bases in the southern Negev this wouldn't be much more of a stretch than the attack on the Syrian suspected reactor site last year; I haven't calculated the range but even if they needed droptanks (used in the Syrian strike) or inflight refueling, they've got that capability and could operate over the Red Sea without entering any Arab airspace.
The Sudanese official's remarks raise several questions in my mind:
- The Minister of State for Highways? He's the one to voice international protests?
- "Sudanese, Ethiopians, and Eritreans." Ethiopia and Eritrea must have really patched up their deadly territorial quarrels when I wasn't looking, or we're talking about radical Islamist groups that transcend borders.
- The newspaper and Sudanese Minister's reports don't seem to specify when this happened, but the CBS report puts it in January during Operation Cast Lead. Why, then, are we just hearing about it now? Could this relate to — surely not? — ‘Umar al-Bashir's problems with the International Criminal Court? Suddenly what Sudan found an embarrassing breach of its sovereignty may help gain it sympathy, especially if it blames the US?
There are, however, some curious things about this story. If the convoy was passing through the coastal region of Sudan, northwest of Port Sudan, the assumption is that it would be proceeding through Egyptian territory and then Sinai, before infiltrating the alleged armaments into Gaza. Given the fact that Israel and Egypt have diplomatic relations, fairly close intelligence ties via Omar Suleiman and that Egypt is not eager to see Hamas strengthened as they see it as a domestic threat in Egypt, why not simply wait until the convoy was in Egypt, and then let the Egyptians know in no uncertain terms that you knew it was there and saw it as a threat to the peace? Assuming the Egyptian government was unaware of the shipment (and if they were aware, there's a whole differeent issue at stake), why not let them take care of it? On the other hand, perhaps they planned to ship the arms by sea to some clandestine spot in the Sinai. But if it was going to go by sea, why not strike it at sea? The clear violation of Sudanese sovereignty suggests one of two things: whoever (US or Israel) carried out the strike wanted to do it on Sudanese soil. Port Sudan is a long way from Gaza. But it does send a message.
I'm not sure what happened, but there are enough matches between the official and unofficial versions (39 dead, 17 trucks destroyed) that I'm inclined to assume the event happened, regardless of who the aircraft belonged to, and that the whole incident will never be fully understood.
I'll update as more leaks, but this looks like an Israeli operation, not an American one, though I wouldn't rule out the US being involved in satellite intelligence (I'm not sure Israel's recon satellites reach to Sudan) and other cooperation.
UPDATE: Reuters says the Sudanese Foreign Minister knows nothing about an airstrike. I guess he hasn't talked to the Minister of State for Highways. The plot doesn't exactly thicken, but it doesn't clarify much either.
UPDATE II: In this story, Olmert comes pretty close to admitting it was Israel, and a few more details are added. Two aircraft involved, one surviving witness, which makes the nationality of the aircraft even more uncertain.