Egypt Accuses Hezbollah of Plotting Attacks and Arms Smuggling to Gaza

Posted in Broader Middle East | 14-Apr-09 | Author: Michael Slackman| Source: New York Times

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.

CAIRO - Egypt released new details on Monday of what it said was a Hezbollah plot to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip, to attack Israeli tourist sites in the Sinai Peninsula and to fire on ships in the Suez Canal. Officials said the police were hunting for 10 Lebanese suspects believed to be hiding in the mountainous terrain of central Sinai.

The case gained wide attention after Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, acknowledged on Friday that he had sent an agent to Egypt to organize assistance for the Palestinians in their fight with Israel, and it quickly took on broader regional implications.

Hezbollah is a military, political and social organization in Lebanon with strong ties to Iran, a bloc in Lebanon's Parliament and ministers in the cabinet.

The case has complicated faltering efforts to reconcile differences among Arab states over how to deal with Iran's rising regional influence and the Palestinian problem. It also highlighted the growing anxiety among some Arab leaders, especially Washington's traditional allies in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, over Western outreach to Iran and Hezbollah.

"I think the Egyptian leadership wants to remind the public and its other partners that there is something serious going on here," said Gamal Abdel Gawad, head of the international relations section of the government-financed Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It wasn't just a war of words. There was an attempt to destabilize Egypt."

When Egypt announced late last week that it had uncovered the Hezbollah cell, the news was greeted skeptically in the region. Months ago Hezbollah's chief effectively urged Egyptians to rise up against the government for not doing more to help Hamas as it battled Israel in Gaza. So the Egyptian announcement was widely perceived as payback.

"These accusations seem to be fabricated from beginning to end," read an editorial on Thursday in Al Quds al Arabi, an Arabic-language, Palestinian-owned newspaper.

A day later, Mr. Nasrallah confirmed that Egyptian authorities had arrested a Hezbollah member, a man he called Sami Shihab. He denied that there had been any plans for attacks on Egyptian soil, but that did little to undermine Egypt's main charges.

The Egyptian press went on the attack, labeling Mr. Nasrallah a "war criminal" and a "monkey" and calling for his arrest and prosecution. Mr. Nasrallah accused Egyptian authorities of being agents of Israel and the United States. "If aiding the Palestinians is a crime, then I am guilty and proud of it," he said.

Egypt's very public and caustic response to the case appeared similar to the reaction some Arab states had to statements in February by an influential former Iranian speaker of Parliament that Bahrain was historically part of Iran. Arab leaders jumped on the remark as evidence of Iran's intentions in the region, and Iran apologized for it.

Iranian officials sharply attacked Egypt during the Gaza fighting for its refusal to open its borders with the beleaguered territory. Iran is a major supporter of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

With this case, Egypt offered a portrait of a conspiracy that it said should give pause to all Arab states, including Syria, which is aligned with Iran and also supports Hezbollah. Officials said Hezbollah had set up an office in Egypt as part of a unit called "the belt," meaning it sought to coordinate activities in Arab states bordering Israel.

It is not clear when Egypt began making the arrests or how many arrests were made. Officials said only that 49 people had been "accused of participating."

Some local news reports said that the first suspects were arrested in November, but that the interrogations did not begin until Saturday. On Monday officials said that six had been charged with spying and weapons possession. Montasser al-Zayyat, a lawyer who said he represented some of the accused, said 46 men had been arrested.

On Sunday, an Egyptian cabinet minister of state, Mofeed Shehab, said the Hezbollah agent whom Mr. Nasrallah had called Sami Shihab was actually Muhammad Youssef Mansour. He said Mr. Mansour had traveled to Egypt on two fake passports and had been organizing plans to recruit members, indoctrinate them and send them to Lebanon to train for "hostile operations" inside Egypt.

He said Hezbollah agents had been asked to conduct surveillance of police and military offices and checkpoints, schools and tourist sites, and to e-mail the information to Lebanon. He said they were also supposed to rent a place near the Suez Canal to monitor ship traffic "in preparing for targeting them."

There were many other details, including charges that they had been storing "explosive belts" and had planned to buy a ship to ferry weapons into Egypt, for eventual shipment to Gaza, and to smuggle weapons there through tunnels.

Mr. Mansour, the man charged with spying on behalf of Hezbollah, acknowledged that he was working in Egypt, but insisted that he had been ordered not to carry out attacks there. A transcript of a portion of his interrogation, confirmed by his lawyer, was printed Monday in an independent daily newspaper, Al Masry al Youm.

"Hezbollah's leadership issued strict orders to not target Israelis on Egyptian soil," Mr. Mansour was quoted as saying.

But even a Hezbollah official saw this conflict as part of a broader struggle with the Egyptian leadership for regional support. "The Egyptians are trying to create a problem, to change the opinion of the Arabs who are now with the Lebanese resistance," said Nawar al-Sahili, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese Parliament. "We don't want to have a problem with any Arab country. The Egyptian authorities are not giving the real facts."

Ambush Kills Lebanese Soldiers

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Four Lebanese Army soldiers were killed in the hashish-growing eastern hinterlands on Monday when men fired a rocket-propelled grenade at their vehicle, apparently in an escalation of the army's battles with drug dealers and criminals in that area.

The attack, which also wounded an army officer, took place in the Bekaa Valley, a poor agricultural area near the Syrian border.

The attack was believed to be revenge for an episode last month in which troops killed a drug baron, Ali Abbas Jaafar, and an aide after they escaped a checkpoint in a stolen car.

The area is a stronghold of Hezbollah, but it released a statement signaling its full support for the army. Members of the Jaafar clan released their own statement condemning the killings and declaring their readiness to help in the arrest of the criminals.

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo, and Robert F. Worth from Beirut, Lebanon.