Loose ends in usual-suspect theories

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By ARCHIS MOHAN ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SUJAN DUTTA AND NISHIT DHOLABHAI
  • Published 14.02.12
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New Delhi, Feb. 13: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman lost little time in blaming Iran and its “protégé” Hezbollah for the Delhi bomb attack and a failed attempt in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Today’s attack in New Delhi and the foiled Tbilisi effort come in the wake of similar attempts on Israeli embassy staffers in Thailand, Azerbaijan and Ukraine in recent months. (See map)

Only the attempt in New Delhi has succeeded, leaving a trail of questions that may never get answered.

The attack itself has flummoxed the Indian security establishment. Security officials insist they had come across little evidence of any Hezbollah presence or activity in India or it having in the past supported or operated through India-based outfits.

“Hezbollah is a Shia outfit with no roots in India where the majority of Muslims is Sunni. There is no evidence of pro-Hezbollah outfits active in India. And why should they when India has historically supported the Palestinian cause vociferously,” said a source in the security establishment.

Hezbollah is a Shia militant outfit based in Lebanon. Iran, which is a majority Shia state, is suspected to finance the terror outfit. India and Lebanon enjoy good diplomatic relations.

K.C. Singh, former secretary in the external affairs ministry, said he couldn’t understand why Hezbollah or elements sympathetic to the outfit should attack Israeli diplomats in India when New Delhi is one of the few countries in the world to have resisted the US-led pressure to impose economic sanctions on Iran.

Washington has been asking India to sever its oil trade with Iran in a bid to put more pressure on Tehran to end its alleged nuclear programme. During his visit to Washington last week, foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai told the Americans that such a step was not possible for New Delhi.

“We have told Washington that we will neither support their sanctions nor will we be able to end our oil trade with Tehran,” Singh said, wondering what could be the motivation for the attack to be carried out in India. Singh, however, said the attack will obviously have implications for New Delhi-Tehran relations.

However, if an anti-Israel force did carry out the attack, close defence relations between Tel Aviv and New Delhi could be one reason for picking out the Indian capital, a security official pointed out.

“On a year-to-year basis, Israel is India’s second largest defence hardware supplier after Russia. India buys defence hardware worth Rs 7,000-9,000 crore from Israel. Israelis also train and supply weapons to Indian special forces,” said the source.

The source said the attack could be interpreted as a warning to New Delhi to end its close defence co-operation with Tel Aviv. Some of the major defence deals with Israel include the import of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), short and medium-range surface-to-air missiles and surveillance balloons (aerostats). India and Israel also have close intelligence-sharing mechanisms.

The same source said that in the past two decades since India and Israel established formal contact, their relations have deepened but that of New Delhi and Tehran had ebbed. However, Iran continues to remain one of the biggest crude oil suppliers to India, meeting nearly 12 per cent of the country’s oil needs.

The special secretary (internal security) in the home ministry, Ajay Chadha, confirmed that today’s attack was similar to the one on the Iranian scientist on a Tehran street in mid-January. “A motorcycle rider wearing a black helmet is said to have followed the Innova car and stuck an explosive to the rear glass-shield and sped away. Delhi police are investigating,” he said.

The New Delhi attack and the failed Tbilisi attempt come between the anniversaries of the deaths of two top Hezbollah militants, Imad Mughniyeh and Abbas Mussawi.

The Israeli government issues travel warnings to its nationals every year on the occasion of these death anniversaries. Hezbollah commander Mughniyeh was killed in a car bombing in Damascus on February 12, 2008, while Mussawi, the group’s secretary-general, was killed by an Israeli missile on February 16, 1992. Hezbollah continues to blame Israel for the two killings.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor said in Jerusalem that Israeli authorities were investigating the blast in New Delhi as well as the incident in Tbilisi. “We are looking into both these incidents and co-operating with the local law enforcement agencies,” Palmor said.

External affairs minister S.M. Krishna telephoned his Israeli counterpart Lieberman, assuring him all co-operation in the investigation. “India very strongly condemns such incidents and it is going to be fully investigated and the culprits brought to justice at the earliest,” Krishna said.

The Israeli ambassador to New Delhi, Alon Ushpiz, termed the attack a “planned, vicious, deliberate attack”. He blamed the “vicious Iranian terror supporting regime who call for the destruction of the Israeli state” to be behind the plot.

The ambassador said he was grateful for the co-operation Indian authorities have accorded to the embassy. “We feel very secure in India… the two countries are very close friends and have a very solid co-operation in areas that affect people’s lives daily — from homeland security to agriculture,” he said.

Ushpiz said the incident took place in the heart of New Delhi and he was sure nobody in India would tolerate such an incident.

In the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, the terrorists had stormed Nariman House, renamed Chabad House, killing six of its occupants, including Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, who was five months pregnant