Hours after it was revealed that the assassins of senior Hamas member Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai used the identities of Israeli citizens carrying a British passport, the United Kingdom has begun probing the affair vigorously.
London-based Times newspaper reported Tuesday evening that the authorities were investigating the possibility that British passport details were copied from the originals by immigration staff while the holders were travelling.
Earlier, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed that the identities in the British passports used by six members of the 11-strong hit squad were those of real British passport holders.
“We are aware that the holders of six British passports have been named in this case,” said a spokesman said. “We believe the passports used were fraudulent and have begun our own investigation.”
At least three of the six members are believed to be Israeli-British citizens who live in Israel and who recognized their details in media reports. Melvyn Adam Mildiner of Beit Shemesh, Steven Daniel Hodes of Ramat Beit Shemesh and Paul John Keeley of Kibbutz Nahsholim panicked when they saw their full names on the assassins' passports, as well as their passport numbers and dates of birth. The pictures and signatures in the passports, however, did not match their own.
The assassinators' passports include three additional names which are similar, but not identical, to those of Israeli citizens: Jonathan Louis Graham, James Clarke and Michael Bodenheimer.
British Embassy spokesman Rafi Shamir told Ynet that the embassy had not received any appeals on the matter from British citizens living in Israel.
Ireland demands explanation
The foreign ministers of the other countries caught in the affair unwillingly also responded Tuesday to reports that their citizens' passports were used by the assassins. Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs said three alleged Irish citizens that Dubai authorities claim helped with the assassination do not exist.
France and Germany's foreign ministries said they were unable to verify the identities of the owners of the passports allegedly issued on their territory. "We are still checking," a French official said, "but it won't be surprising if it turns out the identity was counterfeit."
First row (from left to right): Cell's commander Peter Elvinger (France); Steven Daniel Hodes (Britain); Melvyn Adam Mildiner (Britain); Jonathan Louis Graham (Britain); Evan Dennings (Ireland). Second row: Michael Lawrence Barney (Britain); Paul John Keeley (Britain); Kevin Daveron (Ireland); Gail Folliard (Ireland); Michael Bodenheimer (Germany). Third row: James Leonard Clarke (Britain) (Photo: AFP)
British officials estimated for the first time on Tuesday morning that the Israeli Mossad spy agency was responsible for the assassination. If the claim is proved to be true, this may lead to a new diplomatic crisis between Jerusalem and London, in addition to the difficulties placed by arrest warrants issued in Britain against Israeli officials over the Israeli operation in Gaza.
Only six years ago, New Zealand severed its diplomatic relations with Israel after arresting two Israeli agents carrying fake New Zealand passports.
Michael Higgins, a lawmaker for Ireland's opposition Labour Party, said the use of fraudulent Irish passport was "of grave concern."
"It is not clear who was responsible for this killing, although local police in Dubai are not ruling out the involvement of the Israeli security services," Higgins said. "In that light, it is now incumbent on the (Irish) minister for foreign affairs to seek assurances from the Israeli government that this is not the case."
Meanwhile, a news website in the Persian Gulf quoted a security sources as saying that a Syrian element transferred information about al-Mabhouh to the assassins.
PA off the hook?
Despite a diplomatic statement by the French Foreign Ministry, Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha said that his movement had already received an official answer from the authorities in Paris that the French passport used by one of the assassins in Dubai was forged and that he was not a real French citizen.
Taha, who had accused the Palestinian Authority of being involved in the assassination, refused to repeat the accusation on Tuesday, saying that "the main culprit here is the Zionist enemy, and it bears full responsibility."
According to the report, he met with one of the cell members in Dubai and helped the executors identify al-Mabhouh. The network reported that the second Palestinian, who works in one of the Gulf cities, was linked to the arrested officer.
Meanwhile, an official in Dubai told the New York Times that the hit squad was made up of 17 people, and not 11 as reported. He said six of the assassins have yet to be identified, adding that the passports had been used in a number of European and Asian countries over the past few months.
Aviel Magnezi, Roee Nahmias and AFP contributed to this report