KHARTOUM, Sudan — Two Iranian naval ships have docked in a Sudan port just as Sudan was denying that Iran is linked to a Khartoum military factory hit in an apparent airstrike last week.
Iran's official news agency reported Tuesday that two of its navy vessels — a helicopter carrier and a destroyer ship — docked in Port Sudan on the Red Sea on Monday.
The report said the visit is part of Iran's anti-piracy campaign and that ship commanders will meet Sudanese navy officials during their stay.
The visit underlined the alliance between two nations that have become pariahs in the world — Sudan because of the bloody conflict in Darfur that resulted in war crimes charges against its president, and Iran because of its suspect nuclear program and support of Islamic militants.
A Sudanese military spokesman called the visit an "exchange of amicable relations" between the two nations.
The two have had close relations since Iran's Revolutionary Guard helped Islamist Omar al-Bashir seize Sudan's presidency in a 1989 coup.
Last week's explosion in the Sudanese factory has raised new interest in their ties given Israeli claims that Sudan is a conduit for Iranian arms headed to anti-Israel militant groups.
Al-Bashir is shunned in most of the world because the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against him over the long, bloody Darfur conflict in his country, charging him with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Even so, he has been welcome in Tehran. Al-Bashir visited most recently in August for the Nonaligned Movement summit there.
After the pre-dawn explosion wrecked the factory and shook the capital last week, Sudan charged that Israel hit it in an airstrike. Israel has not confirmed or denied involvement in the blast, which killed four people.
Israeli officials claim that Sudan is playing a key role in an Iranian-backed network of arms shipments to militant groups like Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and the powerful Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Sudan charged Monday that Israel was leaking "misleading information" about Iranian support for Sudanese weapons production.
"We would like to deny any link between Sudanese military production and any foreign party," said a statement from the Sudanese Foreign Ministry.
Accounts vary on the extent of Iranian involvement at the Yarmouk Complex, the site of last week's explosion, one of two state-owned military factories in Khartoum.
There are unconfirmed claims that Iran is involved in some capacity at the factory, and that the factory could be used to assemble Iranian arms bound for Islamic militants.
"The nature of the Sudanese-Iranian cooperation is mysterious, but there were reports that there are military expertise and experts involved," said Hani Raslan of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Raslan also said he suspects the attack on the plant was part of an effort to weaken the Iranian arms smuggling network.
Gen. Sameh Seif Elyazal, a former Egyptian army general, told The Associated Press he learned from private conversations with Israel officials conveyed through reliable sources that the strike was carried out against weapons assembled in the factory "under Iranian supervision," bound for the Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran supplies weapons to Sudan, and in 2008 the two nations signed an agreement to strengthen bilateral military relations.
Iran has also invested in water and engineering projects during al-Bashir's more than two decades in power. Iran's efforts to maintain Sudan as a reliable ally would enable it to transfer weapons through Sudan's vast territory.
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