By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, March 26 (Reuters) - Unidentified aircraft attacked a convoy of suspected arms smugglers as it drove through Sudan toward Egypt in January, killing almost everyone in the convoy, two senior Sudanese politicians said on Thursday.
The politicians, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters the strike took place in a remote area in east Sudan but did not say who carried it out.
Media reports in Egypt and the United States have suggested U.S. or Israeli aircraft may have carried out the strike. Sudan’s foreign minister Deng Alor told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday he had no information on any attack.
Any public confirmation of a foreign attack would have a major impact in Sudan, where relations with the West are already tense following the International Criminal Court’s decision this month to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of Darfur war crimes.
Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Shorouk quoted "knowledgeable Sudanese sources" this week as saying aircraft from the United States were involved in the strike, which it said killed 39 people.
The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum on Thursday declined to comment. Sudan remains on a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, but the State Department has said that Sudan is cooperating with efforts against militant groups.
U.S.-based CBS News, however, reported on its website on Wednesday that its security correspondent had been briefed that Israeli aircraft had carried out an attack in eastern Sudan, targeting an arms delivery to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
A senior Israeli defence official on Thursday described the report as nonsense.
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 second Sudanese politician, an official in the capital Khartoum, said the attack had become an open secret in the remote part of eastern Sudan where it happened.
He said that as recently as two weeks ago, representatives of an Arab tribe had made an official appeal to government authorities for the return of the bodies of more than 30 people killed in the raid. The official said he could not speculate on why the Sudanese government was not confirming the attack took place. (Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Khaled Abdelaziz in Khartoum; Editing by Dominic Evans)