Hizbullah agents operating in Egypt were plotting to attack Israeli tourists at resorts in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian and Israeli officials said Sunday. Egypt announced recently that a cell of 49 men with links to Hizbullah were planning attacks aimed at destabilizing the country.
Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, rejected the accusations but confirmed over the weekend that it had dispatched a member to Egypt - a rare acknowledgment that the Lebanese group was operating in another Arab country.
Egypt's allegations were fresh evidence of the growing strains between the region's staunch US Allies - namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia - and increasingly powerful Iranian- and Syrian-backed groups like Hizbullah and the Palestinian Hamas.
On Sunday, Egyptian Cabinet minister Mufed Shehab said authorities seized explosive belts and other bomb-making materials from the agents and accused them of planning to buy a boat to "bring weapons and ammunition from Yemen, Sudan and Somalia and smuggle them into the country."
The alleged agents also were "observing and locating the tourists groups who repeatedly come to south Sinai resorts and residences paving the way to target them in hostile activities," Shehab told Egyptian parliament members in a reference to Israeli tourists who frequently travel to the Sinai for beach resort vacations.
Israel warned its citizens last week not to visit the Sinai desert because of new intelligence reports of plots to attack and kidnap Israelis there. An Israeli official told the Associated Press that the operatives specifically planned to target Israeli tourists in the Sinai.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Yisrael Katz also told Army Radio on Sunday that Nasrallah had ordered his men to "hit Israeli targets.
"He (Nasrallah) acknowledges that his men were involved in smuggling Iranian weapons into Gaza in order to hit Israel," Katz said.
Nasrallah denies attack claimIn a televised speech on Friday, Nasrallah, confirmed that Sami Shehab, one of the 49 and a senior Hizbullah member, was sent to Egypt to help Palestinian allies in the months before Israel's three-week offensive in the neighboring Gaza Strip.
Nasrallah said Shehab was arrested in November on charges of smuggling arms and equipment to Gaza via the strip's Egyptian border - but he denied that Hizbullah was planning attacks in Egypt.
Tensions between Egypt and Hizbullah escalated earlier this year after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which Israel launched to combat Palestinian rocket attacks.
Many Arabs criticized Egypt - one of only two Arab countries with a peace deal with Israel - for not doing enough to stop the fighting and open its border with the Gaza Strip. Nasrallah had accused Egypt of "taking part in the crime."
Egypt, a mostly Sunni Arab country, has long been at odds with the Shiite Hizbullah and its main backer, Iran. Egypt's government had criticized Hizbullah for "provoking" its monthlong war with Israel in summer 2006.
But Hizbullah, along with its Palestinian ally, Hamas, have support among many regular Egyptians who praise the groups for not recognizing Israel and launching attacks
In Tehran, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani rejected accusations against Hizbullah, state television reported. Iran denies it gives weapons to Hizbullah and Hamas.
Hamas also denied the Egyptian allegations against Hizbullah, calling it a "cruel campaign.
"Supplying arms to the Gaza Strip in support of resistance is not a charge - it is an honor," Hamas said in
a statement faxed to the Associated Press in Damascus, Syria.
News of the arrests of the alleged Hizbullah agents first broke last week when Egypt's prosecutor-general said the men had rented apartments near the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and the Suez Canal, taught members how to make homemade bombs and were collecting intelligence from tourists sites in the Sinai, the Suez Canal and villages along Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas.
Shehab, the Cabinet minister, said 25 of the 49 were in Egyptian custody and they included a Lebanese and several Egyptians and Palestinians.