AFP: Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit accused Iran of using the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah to gain a foothold in Egypt, in a newspaper interview published on Tuesday.
CAIRO (AFP) — Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit accused Iran of using the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah to gain a foothold in Egypt, in a newspaper interview published on Tuesday.
"Iran, and Iran's followers, want Egypt to become a maid of honour for the crowned Iranian queen when she enters the Middle East," Abul Gheit told the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
Strained ties between regional heavyweights Egypt and Iran, which broke off diplomatic relations almost 30 years ago, have deteriorated further since Egypt last week accused a Hezbollah cell of plotting attacks in the country.
Security officials have said 25 members of the cell were arrested, with Egyptian police scouring the Sinai peninsula for the remaining 24 suspects.
The manhunt has prompted the Israeli military to put its troops on high alert along its border with the Sinai peninsula.
Referring to Iran, Abul Gheit said that "I wish I could see their eyes and their faces when their lower lips drop in astonishment at what the… public prosecutor will include in his report."
"(Iran) used (Hezbollah) to gain a presence in Egypt and to say to Egyptians: we are here," he added.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that one of those arrested, a Lebanese named Sami Shihab, was a Hezbollah agent charged with smuggling weapons to Palestinian militants in the Hamas ruled Gaza Strip.
But Nasrallah denied that the cell — which he said consisted of no more than 10 members — was planning attacks in Egypt.
The Egyptian press has given conflicting accounts of Shihab's confessions, including that he admitted to planning three simultaneous attacks on Israeli tourists in Sinai.
The state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper quoted Shihab as saying that Hezbollah ordered bombings in retaliation for the assassination of senior military commander Imad Mughnieh in a Damascus bombing in February 2008.
But a lawyer for some of the suspects said Shihab confessed only to being ordered to scout the movement of Israeli tourists and shipping through the Suez Canal after Mughnieh's death.
"He then received new orders to stop the tracking of tourists and the canal," the lawyer told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Hezbollah has repeatedly vowed to avenge Mughnieh's death, which it blamed on Israel.
Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, is a vocal supporter of Hamas and has lashed out at Egypt for closing its border crossing with the Palestinian enclave, the only one that bypasses Israel.
Israel last week told its citizens to leave the Sinai, a popular destination for Israeli tourists during the Jewish Passover holiday, because of a threat of attacks or kidnappings by Hezbollah.
Egyptian security forces were on Tuesday combing parts of central Sinai for other alleged members of the cell, including a Hezbollah commander.
A security official told AFP that police were forced to call off a house-to-house search in the Sinai's Wadi Al-Amr region after trading fire with local Bedouin on Monday.
Cairo and Tehran broke off diplomatic relations a year after Islamist revolutionaries overthrew the pro-Western shah of Iran in 1979.
Iran opposed Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel and named a street in Tehran after the assassin of then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was killed by an Egyptian Islamist militant in 1981.