• Israeli ambassador told to explain use of fake passports
• Relations with Tel Aviv in ‘deep freeze’, warn British officials
Julian Borger and Mark Tran
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 18 February 2010 13.05 GMT
The father of Palestinian militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was killed recently, holds up a photograph of his son. Dubai police say they are virtually certain Mossad was behind the murder. Photograph: Hatem Moussa/AP
Dubai police said today they were virtually certain Mossad was behind the assassination of a Hamas commander, as the incident threatened to turn into a diplomatic row between Israel and Britain over the use of false British passports.
“Our investigations reveal that Mossad is involved in the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. It is 99%, if not 100%, that Mossad is standing behind the murder,” Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim told the National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.
Britain fired the first shot last night in a potentially explosive diplomatic row with Israel by calling in the country’s ambassador to explain the use of fake British passports by a hit squad who targeted Mabhouh in Dubai last month.
The Israeli ambassador was at the Foreign Office this morning for a brief meeting to “share information” about the assassins’ use of identities stolen from six British citizens living in Israel, as part of the meticulously orchestrated assassination of Mabhouh.
“After receiving an invitation last night, I met with Sir Peter Ricketts, deputy-general of the British foreign minister,” Ron Prosor said after the meeting. “Despite my willingness to co-operate with his request, I could not shed new light on the said matters.”
Britain has stopped short of accusing Israel of involvement, but to signal its displeasure the Foreign Office ignored an Israeli plea to keep the summons secret. “Relations were in the freezer before this. They are in the deep freeze now,” an official told the Guardian.
David Miliband, the foreign secretary, insisted he was determined to “get to the bottom of” how fake British passports were involved in the killing. He said he “hoped and expected” that Tel Aviv would co-operate fully with the investigation into the “outrage”.
Gordon Brown launched an investigation yesterday into the use of the fake passports, which will be led by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The British embassy in Tel Aviv is also contacting the British nationals affected in the plot “and stands ready to provide them with the support they need”, the Foreign Office said last night.
“The British passport is an important part of being British and we have to make sure everything is done to protect it,” Brown told LBC Radio yesterday.
A UAE official said the number of suspects in the assassination had widened to at least 18. The official said the list included 11 people identified this week, two Palestinians in custody and five others. Two women were among the suspects.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz named the two Palestinians as Ahmad Hasnin, a Palestinian intelligence operative, and Anwar Shekhaiber, an employee of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. They were arrested in the Jordanian capital Amman and extradited to Dubai. Both worked for a property company in Dubai belonging to a senior official of Fatah, the political faction headed by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the paper reported.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said there was no proof that Mossad was involved in Mabhouh’s killing in a Dubai hotel last month, but added that Israel had a “policy of ambiguity” on intelligence matters.
There were calls in Israel for an internal government inquiry into whether Mossad was responsible for identity theft from dual nationals, and criticism of its chief, Meir Dagan, for what critics described as a clumsy operation that risked alienating European allies.
“What began as a heart attack turned out to be an assassination, which led to a probe, which turned into the current passport affair,” a columnist, Yoav Limor, wrote in Israel Hayom, a pro-government newspaper. “It is doubtful whether this is the end of the affair.”
Yesterday more details emerged about the assassination plot:
• The Guardian learned that a key Hamas security official is under arrest in Syria on suspicion of having helped the assassins identify Mabhouh as their target.
• Authorities in Vienna have begun an investigation into whether Austria was used as a logistical hub for the operation. Seven of the mobile phones used by the killers had Austrian SIM cards.
• Three of the killers entered Dubai with forged Irish passports that had numbers lifted from legitimate travel documents.
It is not the first British-Israeli row over the misuse of British passports. British officials are particularly angry because the Israeli government pledged that there would be no repeat of an incident in 1987, in which Mossad agents acquired and tampered with British passports.
Lieberman said he believed relations with Britain would not be damaged. “I think Britain recognises that Israel is a responsible country and that our security activity is conducted according to very clear, cautious and responsible rules of the game. Therefore we have no cause for concern,” he said.
France yesterday also claimed the French passport used by one of the assassins had been forged. A source close to the French intelligence services told Reuters a French passport that Dubai said had been used in the operation had a valid number but incorrect name. “It was a very good fake,” the source said.
Hamas, meanwhile, vowed vengeance for Mabhouh’s killing. At a memorial rally in Gaza, Hamas militants vowed that the movement’s armed wing, Izz-el Deen al-Qassam, “will never rest until they reach his killers”.