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Mystery murder in Sudan fans Gaza tensions

TEL AVIV, Israel, April 7 (UPI) -- Reports that a Hamas arms buyer was killed in a mysterious explosion in Sudan has triggered speculation he was killed by Israelis seeking to block weapons being smuggled into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip amid growing tension with the Jewish state.

The Al-Arabiya news network reported that the Hamas operative was one of two men killed when their car exploded on a highway 10 miles outside Port Sudan Tuesday night.

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According to authorities in Khartoum, one of the men was Sudanese. Both had reportedly landed at Port Sudan's airport less than an hour earlier and were driving into the city when the explosion occurred.

Damage to the vehicle indicated it had been hit from above rather than from below, suggesting an airstrike. There were reports of two helicopters in the area shortly before the blast.

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Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti said, "It was absolutely an Israeli attack."

Israel, which Arab-dominated Sudan considers an enemy state, declined comment on the incident but its intelligence services and military Special Forces have assassinated dozens of top Hamas militants in recent years.

On Jan. 19, 2010, Hamas' arms procurement mastermind, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was killed in a hotel in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, as he was reportedly meeting Iranian agents to line up a weapons shipment to Gaza.

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Dubai authorities blamed the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, and identified 27 people using false passports it said were in the hit team, all of whom escaped.

Tension has been swelling between Israel and Hamas in recent weeks after nearly two years of relative quiet since Israel carried out a 22-day invasion of the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008-09 in a bid to halt rocket attacks.

The barrages have continued and earlier this month a bomb went off at a Jerusalem bus station, killing one woman. A radical Palestinian group said it carried out the attack.

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In recent days, Israeli warplanes have carried out several airstrikes against Gaza, killing a dozen people, in response to rocket and mortar attacks. Israeli commanders have warned a new invasion of Gaza, possibly heavier than the last one, is possible if the violence escalates.

On Monday, military commentator Ron Ben-Yeshai of the Yediot Ahronot daily reported that the army had got the green light from the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to resume killing Palestinian militants in Gaza to deter further attacks.

Netanyahu reportedly had reservations about unleashing another full-fledged military operation against Gaza. But he said Hamas' political leadership could also be targeted if the militants persist in rocketing Israel.

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Tuesday's killings in Sudan followed the recent interception of at least two shipments of Iranian arms which the Israelis say were destined for Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group in Gaza.

One was aboard a ship boarded in the eastern Mediterranean, the other aboard an aircraft flying from Iran to Syria, Iran's key Arab ally, which was forced to land in Turkey. Syria and Iran also arm Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Sudan was at one time considered a key supply route from Iran to Gaza, with weapons landed at Port Sudan and driven north across the desert to Egypt, where they were smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels.

However, consignments shipped to Sudan from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in the southern Persian Gulf apparently stopped or were significantly reduced after a series of air strikes, possibly carried out by Israel, in early 2009.

Since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office Feb. 11 by massive street protests, the Israelis have been concerned that the new regime emerging in Cairo may abandon Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state.

This has been the cornerstone of Israel's strategic policies since then and the abrogation of that treaty, and another with Jordan since in 1994, could have alarming consequences for Israel.

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Israel fears that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best organized opposition group during the Mubarak era, could rise to power and support the Islamists in Gaza.

In another strike at Hamas, Israel Monday indicted Dirara Abu Sisi, a Gazan, on charges of masterminding Hamas' rocket program.

Abu Sisi, an engineer who ran Gaza's only power station, was apparently abducted by Israeli agents aboard a train in Ukraine Feb. 19 and secretly transported to the Jewish state.

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