Monday, April 13, 2009

Egypt: Hezbollah targeted Israeli tourists in Sinai

Hezbollah agents operating in Egypt were plotting to attack Israeli tourists at resorts in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian and Israeli officials said Sunday. Egypt announced recently that a cell of 49 men with links to Hezbollah were planning attacks aimed at destabilizing the country. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, rejected the accusations but confirmed over the weekend that it had dispatched a member to Egypt - a rare acknowledgment that the Lebanese militant group was operating in another Arab country. In his first comments on the accusations, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Lebanon's prime minister in a phone call on Sunday that Egypt "will not allow anyone to violate its borders or destabilize the country." Advertisement The war of words between Egypt and Hezbollah escalated further on Sunday as official state media in Cairo blasted Nasrallah as a "monkey sheikh." On Sunday, Egyptian Cabinet minister Mufed Shehab said authorities seized explosive belts and other bomb-making materials from the agents and accused them of planning to buy a boat to "bring weapons and ammunition from Yemen, Sudan and Somalia and smuggle them into the country." The alleged agents also were "observing and locating the tourists groups who repeatedly come to south Sinai resorts and residences paving the way to target them in hostile activities," Shehab told Egyptian parliament members in a reference to Israeli tourists who frequently travel to the Sinai for beach resort vacations. Israel warned its citizens last week not to visit the Sinai desert because of new intelligence reports of militant plots to attack and kidnap Israelis there. An Israeli official told The Associated Press that the operatives specifically planned to target Israeli tourists in the Sinai. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press. Israeli Cabinet Minister Yisrael Katz also told Army Radio on Sunday that Nasrallah had ordered his men to "hit Israeli targets." "He (Nasrallah) acknowledges that his men were involved in smuggling Iranian weapons into Gaza in order to hit Israel," Katz said. In addition, members of Egypt's parliament are demanding that Nasrallah be placed on trial after he acknowledged on Friday that the Lebanese-based group is running an espionage cell inside the country in an effort to aid Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Egypt's public prosecutor charged nine people with spying for Hezbollah, security sources said on Sunday. The suspects are charged with compliance, working for a foreign state, and aiming to harm Egypt's security. Egyptian security forces also confiscated weapons and bombs, which it said the suspects planned to use. Last week Egypt's public prosecutor, Abdel-Magid Mohammed, accused Nasrallah of dispatching agents to Egypt during Israel's January offensive in the Gaza Strip. It said that the Hezbollah cell had rented apartments overlooking the Suez Canal in order to spy on traffic through the canal. It also accused them of spying on resorts in Sinai, and renting rooms in fashionable districts where Hezbollah agents held training workshops on spreading Shiite ideology in Egypt. In a televised statement on Friday evening Nasrallah vehemently denied allegations, saying that only one of those held was a Hezbollah member, and that up to 10 others were involved in an effort to supply military equipment to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Earlier Sunday an Egyptian state-controlled newspaper escalated the row with Hezbollah by personally blasting Nasrallah. "We do not allow you, Oh Monkey Sheikh, to mock our judiciary, for you are a bandit and veteran criminal who killed your countrymen, but we will not allow you to threaten the security and safety of Egypt...and if you threaten its sovereignty, you will burn!" al-Gomhouria newspaper wrote. The editorial, written by editor Mohamed Ali Ibrahim, covered the front page and carried the headline "A criminal who knows no repentance" over a picture of Nasrallah. "I say to you what every Egyptian knows, that you are an Iranian party," Ibrahim wrote. "Are there instructions from Iran to drag Egypt into a conflict?" Egypt and Iran have not had full diplomatic relations since shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, when Iran cut ties after former President Anwar Sadat hosted the deposed Iranian shah in Cairo. Ties were further strained during the conflict in Gaza in January, when Tehran criticized Egypt for not doing enough to help Palestinians and for closing its border with the strip, which Egypt shut to most traffic after the Islamist group Hamas took control of the area. Egypt and other Sunni states, like Saudi Arabia, are worried by what they see as the rising influence of Iran in the region. Both Cairo and Riyadh have said Iran's power in the region is growing. Egyptian state daily, al-Ahram, citing an unnamed official, described the detained men as part of a "terrorist cell" and called Nasrallah an accomplice to a crime. Mustapha al-Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University, said Cairo wanted to use the detentions to undermine anyone sympathizing with Hezbollah or Iran's position. Some ordinary Egyptians and opposition groups, have echoed Tehran and Hezbollah's call for Cairo to help Palestinians more. "The Egyptian government wants to denounce Hezbollah and embarrass Arab governments who have close relations with Iran," Sayyid said, adding that the al-Gomhouria article reflected official thinking. "The Egyptian government is worried that there is a competition with Iran and that Iran is using its allies in the region like Hezbollah and Hamas in order to cause problems and difficulties for the Egyptian government," he said.

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