TEL AVIV (Dec. 2)
Cairo radio accused Israel today of sinking an unarmed civilian motor-boat in the Gulf of Suez but no formal charge of cease-fire violation has been filed so far. The accusation was made only after Israel officially announced last night that one of its Navy patrol boats sank an Egyptian boat that failed to halt when challenged off the eastern shores of the Israel-held Sinai peninsula some time after midnight last Saturday. Four Egyptian crewmen were drowned. The Israeli announcement said that documents found on the three recovered bodies indicated that the men were on a reconnaissance mission for Egyptian intelligence and also yielded “signs” that they were smuggling hashish. Cairo radio claimed that “only unarmed fishing boats operate in this area” and accused Israel of a “criminal act against unarmed civilians.” The three-and-a-half day delay between the incident and the Israeli announcement of its occurrence and the failure of Cairo to mention it until Israel did, indicated that neither side is interested in raising a major issue at this time which might imperil the Suez cease-fire.
Some observers here believe the Egyptians are testing world opinion before acting further but may lodge a protest with the United Nations. The absence of official comment from Washington indicated to some here that the U.S. is waiting to see whether the incident develops or blows over. Apart from last night’s brief announcement, no details emerged from official quarters here. A reliable military source told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that the documents found on the dead Egyptians showed that they were returning to base after having completed an intelligence mission. The source said the delay in announcing the sinking was caused by the need to study and analyze the documents. He said the Israeli patrol boat had not intended to sink the Egyptian craft but had to open fire after it ignored warning shots. Sources here said hashish was found on the bodies. They said the presence of the drug may have been a cover for an intelligence mission or the Egyptian agents may have been trafficking in narcotics as a sideline.
One observer said the agents may have been paid for their work in hashish instead of cash. One source noted that smugglers’ boats have been used in the past to transport Egyptian spies into Israel-held territory. Military sources have reported a great increase in Egyptian intelligence activity during the past month. The Egyptians seem to be seeking information about Israeli positions on the east bank of the Suez Canal and the roads leading to them which have been greatly improved since the cease-fire began. Some sources linked the reports of intelligence activities with reports of large scale Egyptian amphibious maneuvers under the supervision of high ranking Soviet military officers. There have also been reports from foreign sources of heavy deliveries of amphibious craft and equipment to Egypt from Russia. These reports have given rise to speculation that the Egyptians and Russians may be planning a push across the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Suez after the cease-fire ends.