By Amos Harel, Yossi Melman and Barak Ravid
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted on Thursday at Israel's suspected role in an air-strike that reportedly hit a convoy of arms smugglers as it drove through Sudan toward Egypt in January.
"We operate everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure - in close places, in places further away, everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure, we hit them and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence," said Olmert, speaking at a conference in Herzliya.
"It was true in the north in a series of incidents and it was true in the south, in a series of incidents," he added. There is no point in going into detail, and everybody can use their imagination. Those who need to know, know. And those who need to know, know that there is no place where Israel cannot operate. There is no such place."
Earlier Thursday, two senior Sudanese politicians confirmed that unidentified aircraft attacked the suspected arms smugglers, killing almost everyone in the convoy. An American news network said that the attack was carried out by the Israel Air Force.
CBS reported that the IAF carried out the attack on a convoy of trucks in Sudan carrying arms for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
According to the report, 39 people riding in the 17-truck convoy were killed, while a number of civilians in the area were injured.
Israeli officials declined to confirm or deny whether Israel had been involved in an air strike in Sudan.
The Sudanese politicians, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the strike took place in a remote area of east Sudan but did not say who carried it out.
Sudanese State Minister Mabrouk Mubarak Saleem was quoted in the Paris-based Sudan Tribune Web site as saying that a "major power bombed small trucks carrying arms, burning all of them."
The strike "killed Sudanese, Eritreans and Ethiopians, and injured others," Saleem added.
The two Sudanese politicians who knew about the January attack said it was still unclear where the aircraft came from. But one of the sources, a senior politician from eastern Sudan, said his colleagues had spoken to a survivor of the raid.
"There was an Ethiopian fellow, a mechanic. He was the only one who survived. He said they came in two planes. They passed over them then came back and they shot the cars. He couldn't tell the nationality of the aircraft ... The aircraft destroyed the vehicles. There were four or five vehicles," he said.
The politician added that the route, in a desert region northwest of Port Sudan on the Red Sea cost, was regularly used by groups smuggling weapons into Egypt.
"Everyone knows they are smuggling weapons to the southern part of Egypt," he said.
The CBS national security correspondent David Martin broke the story. He said that Israeli intelligence learned of plans to move weapons through Sudan, north toward Egypt and then via the Sinai into the Gaza Strip.
According to Martin, Israel and the U.S. had signed an agreement for closer international efforts to block smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip.
During the final days of the Israeli offensive against Hamas, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her then-American counterpart Condoleezza Rice signed a security-intelligence memorandum on intensifying cooperation in a joint effort to block the smuggling of arms from Iran to Hamas via Sudan.
The Sudanese news site said the attack took place "in a desert area northwest of Port Sudan city, near Mount al-Sha'anun."
According to SudanTribune.com, the airstrike was an "embarrassment" to Sudan's government, and it discussed the matter with Egypt's government "to gather more information to formulate a response."
On the basis of the report from Sudan, American reporters sought confirmation from U.S. administration officials, which led them to the conclusion that the air strike did take place but that the U.S. Air Force was not involved and that the aircraft were Israeli.
CBS correspondent Dan Raviv said that "if Israeli airplanes carried out the attack in Sudan, it would suggest that there is a shadow against Hamas and its weapons sources that is wider than the Israeli or U.S. government has revealed."
In the original Sudanese report, an unidentified Egyptian official was quoted as saying that the planes that carried out the attack were based out of many countries in the region, and some observers guessed that he meant Djibouti, but there is no such confirmation.
Israeli defense sources have reiterated on a number of occasions that Iran embarked on an intensive effort to supply Hamas with weapons and ammunition during Operation Cast Lead.
The Israeli security sources said that an international network has been set in place in which smugglers move arms caches from Iran through the Persian Gulf to Yemen, on to Sudan and then to Egypt and Sinai where they are brought into the Gaza Strip through tunnels.
Israeli intelligence has warned that the deliveries include anti-tank missiles, small arms, and military grade high explosives, as well as missiles.
Meanwhile, in May, an international conference is scheduled to take place in Ottawa, the third of its kind since the end of Operation Cast Lead, which will discuss how to prevent arms smuggling from Iran to the Gaza Strip.
In addition to host Canada, Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Denmark, the U.S. and Israel will also take part.
Immediately after the conference a "war game" is scheduled to take place in Washington, with the participation of security officials and diplomats from the countries involved. The "war game" will practice a scenario of foiling arms smuggling from Iran to the Gaza Strip.
The most recent conference took place in London a week ago and the countries cooperating in blocking the arms smuggling from Iran formulated a joint plan of operations. The plan includes the signing of a series of bilateral agreements with countries situated along the path of the smugglers, as well as countries whose commercial fleets carry cargo from Iran elsewhere.