Iranian warships dock in Sudan after alleged Israeli airstrikes

The visit has put Sudan's links to Iran under closer scrutiny.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir gestures to anti-Israel protesters after his cabinet held an emergency session over a factory blast, in Khartoum, on Oct. 24.

Sudan’s links to Iran came under scrutiny Tuesday as it welcomed two Iranian warships less than a week after an explosion at a Khartoum weapons warehouse that Sudanese officials blamed on an Israeli airstrike.

Unconfirmed reports in Israel suggested that the arms factory was either storing or manufacturing weapons on behalf of Iran. Sudan has in the past denied that it allows Iranian weapons to be shipped through its territory to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Sudan's information minister, Ahmed Belal Osman, last week accused Israel of carrying out an airborne attack on the facility. An explosion at Yarmouk, outside Khartoum on Oct. 24 left extensive damage. Sudan has complained to the United Nations about the strike. Israel has refused to comment.

The arrival of the Iranian Navy’s helicopter carrier Kharg and its destroyer Admiral Shahid Naqdi on Sudan’s Red Sea coast late Monday raised questions over strengthening relations between Khartoum and Tehran.

“They’re saying it’s pure coincidence, that [the visit] has been planned for weeks, and has nothing to do with the factory explosion last week,” says one Westerner in Sudan, who asked not to be identified. “Maybe so, but it’s pretty clumsy timing and really raises the heat on both Khartoum and the Iranians over these alleged arms deals and links to Gaza and Hezbollah.”

The warships’ visit was a chance to “support strong political, security and diplomatic relations” between Sudan and Iran, Sawarmi Khaled Saad, a Sudanese Army spokesman, told the country’s official SUNA news agency Monday.

It would allow Sudanese officials to study “advanced weapons and advanced ships,” he added.

The two vessels have been based in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea since September, as part of Iran’s involvement in international naval efforts to beat Somali piracy. An Iranian vessel was hijacked in 2008.

Their visit to Sudan would “convey Iran's message of peace to the regional countries and maintain the security of shipping corridors against maritime terrorism,” Press TV, an Iranian state-owned broadcaster, reported.

The government in Khartoum Monday issued a terse statement denying that there was any agreement for Sudan to assemble or store arms for Iran.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirms what is known by all: that Iran has no need to manufacture weapons in Sudan, for Iran or for its allies," the ministry said in a statement. "We want to deny any relation between Sudan's military manufacturing and any foreign partner."

Israel has in the past accused Sudan of allowing Iran to transport weapons to militant groups in the Middle East via its territory. The arms are then allegedly smuggled through Egypt to Gaza or on to Lebanon.

Sudan, whose president, Omar al-Bashir, is known to be close to Iran’s leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has twice accused Israel of carrying out airstrikes inside his country.

A convoy of vehicles traveling toward Sudan’s border with Egypt was destroyed by unknown aircraft in January 2009, and a single SUV was hit in Port Sudan last year.

It was reported in 2009 that the convoy included Iranian weapons, including anti-tank rockets, that were being shipped to Hamas in Gaza. Tehran and Khartoum have both denied this.

The two Iranian warships were due to leave port on Wednesday and continue patrols in the Red Sea, Sudanese officials said.

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