Egypt: Hezbollah cell plotted to kill Israelis

— CAIRO, Egypt - Hezbollah agents operating in Egypt were plotting to attack Israeli tourists at resorts in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian and Israeli officials said Sunday.

Egypt announced recently that a cell of 49 men with links to Hezbollah were planning attacks aimed at destabilizing the country. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, rejected the accusations but confirmed over the weekend it had dispatched a member to Egypt - a rare acknowledgment that the Lebanese militant group was operating in another Arab country.

Egypt's allegations were fresh evidence of the growing strains between the region's staunch U.S. allies - namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia - and increasingly powerful Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant groups like Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

On Sunday, Egyptian Cabinet minister Mufed Shehab said authorities seized explosive belts and other bomb-making materials from the agents and accused them of planning to buy a boat to "bring weapons and ammunition from Yemen, Sudan and Somalia and smuggle them into the country."

The purported agents also were "observing and locating the tourists groups who repeatedly come to south Sinai resorts and residences, paving the way to target them in hostile activities," Shehab told Egyptian parliament members in a reference to Israeli tourists who frequently travel to Sinai for beach resort vacations.

Israel warned its citizens last week not to visit the Sinai Desert because of new intelligence reports of militant plots to attack and kidnap Israelis there. An Israeli official told The Associated Press that the operatives specifically planned to target Israeli tourists in Sinai. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the news media.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Yisrael Katz also told Army Radio on Sunday that Nasrallah had ordered his men to "hit Israeli targets."

"He [Nasrallah] acknowledges that his men were involved in smuggling Iranian weapons into Gaza in order to hit Israel," Katz said.

In a televised speech on Friday, Nasrallah confirmed that Sami Shehab, one of the 49 and a senior Hezbollah member, was sent to Egypt to help militant Palestinian allies in the months before Israel's three-week offensive in the neighboring Gaza Strip. Nasrallah said Shehab was arrested in November on charges of smuggling arms and equipment to Gaza via the strip's Egyptian border - but he denied that Hezbollah was planning attacks in Egypt.

Tensions between Egypt and Hezbollah escalated earlier this year after Israel launched the offensive in Gaza, which killed 1,300 Palestinians in the coastal territory. Israel said the attack was aimed at stopping Palestinian militants from launching rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Many Arabs criticized Egypt - one of only two Arab countries with a peace deal with Israel - for not opening its border with the Gaza Strip or doing enough to stop the fighting. Nasrallah had accused Egypt of "taking part in the crime" against Palestinians.

Egypt, a mostly Sunni Arab country, has long been at odds with the Shiite Hezbollah and its main backer, Iran. Egypt's government had criticized Hezbollah for "provoking" its monthlong war with Israel in summer 2006.

But Hezbollah and its Palestinian ally, Hamas, have support among many Egyptians who praise the groups for not recognizing Israel and launching attacks against the Jewish state.

In Iran, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani rejected accusations against Hezbollah, state television reported. Iran denies it supplies weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Information for this article was contributed from Jerusalem by Steve Weizman and Ian Deitch, from Cairo by Omar Sinan, from Damascus, Syria, by Albert Aji, and from Tehran, Iran, by Nasser Karimi of The Associated Press.

Front Section, Pages 4 on 04/13/2009