British authorities are investigating how six British nationals apparently had their identities stolen by suspected Mossad agents on a mission to assassinate a Hamas leader in Dubai, the online edition of the Times reported on Wednesday.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed that the identities used by six members of the 11-strong hit squad were those of real British passport holders living in Israel. “We believe the passports used were fraudulent, and have begun our own investigation,” a spokesman said.
Authorities are considering the possibility that British passport details were copied from the originals by hotel or immigration staff while the holders were travelling, the newspaper said.
While the names, passport numbers and dates of birth on the fraudulent passports matched the originals, the photographs and signatures differed.
British officials refused to comment on the real identity of the killers of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas military chief, but speculation has mounted that the killing was the work of Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.
Mabhouh, 50, was found dead in his Dubai hotel room on Jan. 20. The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, has accused Israel of killing Mabhouh and vowed revenge.
Israeli officials have accused Mabhouh of helping smuggle rockets into the Gaza Strip, the coastal territory ruled by the armed group.
Top Hamas figures have denied reports that Mabhouh was en route to Iran, a major Hamas backer. But the group has not given clear reasons for his presence in Dubai.
Mossad has used the forged and stolen passports of several friendly countries to carry out hits in the past, including a bungled assassination attempt on the Hamas leader, Sheikh Khaled Meshaal, in 1997, when forged Canadian passports were used.
In 2004, New Zealand suspended diplomatic relations with Israel after jailing two Israeli agents for possessing fake New Zealand passports. In 1987, Britain formally protested to Israel over the use of forged British passports, and received assurances it would not happen again.
Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan announced on Monday that police were hunting six British passport holders, three with Irish passports, including a woman, and the holders of a German and a French passport, all of whom had managed to leave the UAE.
France and Germany said they were unable to verify the identities of the French and German passport holders named in Dubai. “We are still checking,” a French foreign ministry official said. “But it would not be surprising if the identity was false.”
Ireland said the three Irish passports appeared to be forgeries rather than stolen identities. “There are no passports in those names or with those numbers,” said an Irish foreign affairs department spokesman.
Michael Higgins, an Irish opposition MP, called the use of fake Irish passports a matter of “grave concern” and called for Israel to give an explanation. Israel has refused to respond to allegations of its involvement.
The Times reported on Saturday that Mossad was stepping up covert operations across the Middle East. Gad Shimron, a former Mossad field agent, told the Times that elements of the Dubai killing bore a striking resemblance to past operations. Computerization has made producing convincing fake papers more difficult, possibly accounting for the use of stolen rather than fabricated identities, he said.
“These days, any border policeman has near-instant access to international databases where he can authenticate documents,” Shimron said. “That means that passports used by spies have to be as close as possible to the real thing.”
Israel says no proof
Meanwhile, Israel's foreign minister said on Wednesday the use of the identities of foreign-born Israelis by a hit squad suspected of killing a Hamas militant in Dubai did not prove the Mossad spy agency assassinated him.
"There is no reason to think that it was the Israeli Mossad, and not some other intelligence service or country up to some mischief," Avigdor Lieberman, asked about the operation and alleged passport subterfuge, told Army Radio.
But Lieberman did not deny outright Israeli involvement in the killing of Hamas's Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel last month, saying Israel has a "policy of ambiguity" on intelligence matters and there was no proof it was behind the assassination.
Some Israeli commentators on intelligence matters suggested the Mossad may have blundered, if it carried out the attack and had hoped to keep its involvement secret, by using the identities of people who could be traced back to Israel.
Dubai police have said they could not rule out Israeli involvement.