DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) – A spy novel-worthy police narrative about the slaying of a Hamas commander brought uneasy questions for Dubai authorities Tuesday as their account of a crack hit squad from Europe ran into serious challenges from Britain, Ireland and Germany.
At least four people who live in Israel share names with suspects identified by Dubai police investigating the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Three of the four said they were not the people whose photos were made public by Dubai; a daughter of the fourth said the allegations were a mistake.
Even so, the purported link to Israel was likely to encourage Hamas and others to press their claims that the Mossad secret service masterminded the slaying.
Another twist added to the intrigue. Officials outside Dubai said at least two Palestinians linked to the case were in Dubai custody, leaving Hamas and its Western-backed Palestinian rivals trading bitter accusations.
Dubai authorities described an 11-member team that swooped into the Gulf city-state last month on a mission to kill al-Mabhouh and then fanned out with clockwork precision to Europe, Asia and South Africa in less than 24 hours.
Dubai’s police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, ran through the details at a news conference Monday, describing suspects who donned fake beards or wigs and shadowed al-Mabhouh so closely they even rode in the same elevator with him at a luxury hotel.
The wanted list was topped by an alleged mastermind carrying a French passport and others traveling on European passports: six British, three Irish and a German.
But it quickly came under dispute.
Ireland said three suspects’ names do not appear on any passport registry. Britain and Germany said the passport details cited by Dubai do not appear genuine. The consul-general of France in Dubai, Nada Yafi, declined to comment on the case.
One of the British suspects — identified as Melvyn Adam Mildiner — told The Associated Press the passport photo on the Dubai wanted flier is not him but the passport number was correct.
“Wow, I didn’t know that (the number) was out. That’s horrid,” said Mildiner, who has dual British-Israeli citizenship and was reached by phone in Israel.
“That is a bit bizarre,” he said, adding: “I have never been to Dubai.”
At least three other people with the same names as the alleged suspects — identified by Dubai police as Britons Paul John Keeley and Stephen Daniel Hodes, and German passport holder Michael Bodenheimer — live in Israel, according to Israel’s Channel 2 TV.
Keeley and Hodes denied any link to the slaying. Channel 2 reached Bodenheimer’s daughter, who called the Dubai allegations a “mistake.”
“I have never been to Dubai. I don’t know what is happening. I am simply afraid,” Hodes told Channel 2.
Both Hodes and Keeley said the passport photos distributed by Dubai police were not theirs. “I am in shock,” Keeley said.
Hamas has repeatedly accused Israel’s Mossad secret service of masterminding the slaying and has vowed revenge.
Hamas has acknowledged that al-Mabhouh was involved in the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989. Israeli officials have accused al-Mabhouh of helping smuggle rockets into the Gaza Strip, the coastal territory ruled by the militant group.
“No one wanted to assassinate him but Israel,” said al-Mabhouh’s brother, Fayek, in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp.
Other elements also brought added scrutiny on Dubai, including how investigators pieced together the evidence or why such an apparently well-planned operation would overlook Dubai’s wide-ranging security cameras.
It all adds up to something far less definitive than Tamim’s presentation, which included video surveillance clips of both the alleged killers and al-Mabhouh. His body was found Jan. 20 in room 230 at the Al-Bustan Rotana Hotel near Dubai’s international airport.
Dubai’s attorney general, Essam al-Hemaydan, said Tuesday that international arrest warrants have been issued for those accused of links to the slaying. Officials said they would seek the help of Interpol.
But Dubai’s wanted list appears to have major holes.
In Dublin, Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs said it could not find the three alleged Irish suspects in passport records and the numbers listed were counterfeit because they have the wrong number of digits and contain no letters. “Ireland has issued no passports in those names,” the department said in a statement to the AP.
Germany’s Interior Ministry also said the five-digit passport number given for the German suspect is too short and lacks the letters that now appear on its passports.
A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said it appears the British passports cited by Dubai were “fraudulent” and officials have opened an inquiry. The spokesman commented on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
Dubai officials did not return calls for comment.
A former chief of the French spy agency DGSE, Alain Chouet, said authorities worldwide need to concentrate more on compiling and checking biometric data or risk being fooled by fake or altered passports or IDs.
Tamim described a well-organized and disciplined team — with a penchant for simple disguises — as responsible for the slaying of al-Mabhouh, a founder of Hamas’ military wing.
Tamim said the suspects arrived in Dubai at different times, checked into separate hotels and tailed al-Mabhouh from the moment of his arrival. They paid for all expenses in cash and used cell phone cards to avoid being traced while calling a “command center” in Austria.
Some of the Austrian numbers provided by Dubai police went to automated voice mail accounts.
Surveillance footage shows the female suspect apparently wearing a wig and at times a big hat and sunglasses to blend in as a tourist. Others were also disguised as vacationers, wearing baseball caps or tennis outfits and carrying rackets. Tamim said some suspects had fake beards.
He said forensic tests indicate al-Mabhouh died of suffocation, and lab tests were being done to pinpoint other possible factors in his death.
The slaying took just 10 minutes, Tamim said. Four assassins entered his room while he was out, using an electronic device to open the door, and waited for al-Mabhouh.
The team then headed for the airport, some of them flying to Europe and others to Asia or South Africa, he said. All left the country within 19 hours of arriving in Dubai, one of seven semiautonomous emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.
Tamim did not directly implicate Israel but noted the possibility that “leaders of certain countries gave orders to their intelligence agents to kill” al-Mabhouh.
A former high-ranking Mossad official, Rami Igra, told Israel Army Radio the assassination “does look professional” as described by Dubai police. However, he said it “doesn’t look like an Israeli operation” because of the apparent sloppiness, including allowing members to be videotaped by security cameras.
Igra noted al-Mabhouh has many enemies and was at the center of bloody Palestinian feuds. “He was not new to terror … and he had many contacts with people who had good reason to want him dead,” he said.
The two detained Palestinians were Hamas operatives, said Adnan Damiri, the police spokesman in the West Bank.
Hamas, however, claimed the suspects were linked to the rival Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as part of alleged clandestine links with Israeli intelligence.
In Amman, Jordan, government spokesman Nabil Sharif told the AP the two Palestinians were handed over to the United Arab Emirates “a few days ago.” He declined to give their names or further details.
Top Hamas figures have denied reports that al-Mabhouh was en route to Iran, a major Hamas backer. The group has not given clear reasons for his presence in Dubai.
Besides Mildiner, Keeley, Hodes and Bodenheimer, Dubai police identified the suspects as Michael Lawrence Barney, James Leonard Clarke and Jonathan Louis Graham of Britain; Gail Folliard, Evan Dennings and Kevin Daveron of Ireland, and Peter Elvinger of France.