LONDON, March 31 (Reuters) - Israeli fighter-bombers, backed by drones, ships and helicopters, attacked a convoy in Sudan in January after agents told it the trucks were taking Iranian missiles to Hamas, Time magazine said on Tuesday.
Quoting two senior Israeli security sources, the magazine said the 23-truck convoy was carrying the missiles to Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers who were then fighting Israel.
Israel has declined to comment on media reports about the attack, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak refused to reveal any details when asked about the Time article.
"I don’t believe that in our current situation we have the privilege to talk too much. We must do what is needed and keep quiet," he told reporters during a tour of the Golan Heights.
The magazine said U.S. officials were informed of the strike, but were not involved.
"The attack was a warning to Iran and other adversaries, showing Israel’s intelligence capability and its willingness to mount operations far beyond its borders in order to defend itself from gathering threats," it said on its Web site (www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1888352,00.html).
The story, like others in the past week on the subject, was widely picked up by Israeli media, which operate under strict military censorship when reporting local security affairs.
The closest Israel has come to an apparent public statement was on Thursday, when outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel acted "wherever we can" against its enemies: "There’s no point getting into details — everyone can use his imagination."
On Friday, Sudan said it suspected Israel of two attacks on smuggling convoys in a remote northern region that killed up to 40 people. A foreign ministry spokesman said the vehicles hit in the raid were too small to be smuggling weapons.
Israel accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons, despite Tehran’s denials. Like Olmert, incoming right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not ruled out Israeli military action to prevent Iran acquiring an atomic arsenal, even if Israel’s key ally the United States does not cooperate.
Analysts question Israel’s long-range military capabilities but its forces, which are widely assumed to possess their own nuclear weapons, do train for missions as far away as Iran, much of which lies further from Israel than does northern Sudan.
The Jewish state, which surprised Saddam Hussein with an air strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, bombed a site in Syria in 2007 that U.S. officials called a secret nuclear facility. It has long had a reputation for covert action around the world.
Time said F-16 fighter-bombers carried out two runs on the convoy, while F-15 fighters provided cover and naval helicopters were on hand to rescue any downed pilots. In-flight refuelling tankers were also used, its sources said.
After a first bombing run, unmanned drones sent back images showing some trucks were not hit and the F-16s went in again.
An Israeli security source told Reuters that Israel suspected Iran was trying to provide Hamas with missiles, based on a Soviet design commonly known as FROG. Their range of 70 km (45 miles) is more than double that of Hamas’s current arsenal.