Thursday, November 5, 2009

Israel claims seizing ship carrying Hezbollah arms

Updated on : Thursday, November 05, 2009

JERUSALEM: The Israeli navy said Wednesday that commandos had seized a container ship carrying a huge cache of weapons that originated in Iran and was ultimately destined for the militia of the Islamist Hezbollah movement.

As part of its routine inspection of ships in the Mediterranean Sea, the Israeli navy intercepted the vessel Tuesday night near Cyprus, roughly 100 miles off the Israeli coast.

There was no resistance from the ship's crew, and once Israeli special forces boarded, they found an estimated 600 tons of rockets, guns and other munitions, said Rear Adm. Rani Ben-Yehuda, deputy head of the Israeli navy.

Flying under an Antiguan flag, the ship, called the Francop, was carrying cargo loaded in Damietta, Egypt, and bound for Latakia in Syria, Israeli defense officials said.

Some of the ship's 500 containers were stamped with the insignia of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, and 36 of them were found to contain arms. Other documents found on board identified the cargo as originating in Iran, Ben-Yehuda said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, speaking from Tehran, denied that Iranian arms were bound for Syria and said "pirates" had disrupted legitimate trade between Syria and Iran, news services reported.

The incident comes as Israeli political officials defend their country in the U.N. General Assembly against allegations that Israeli forces committed war crimes during last winter's three-week war with the Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.

Israel contends that it took military action only after years in which the Iranian-backed group fired rockets at civilian targets in Israel.

The country regards Hamas and Hezbollah as imminent threats -- a point highlighted when Israeli intelligence officials told the country's parliament this week that Hamas had recently test-fired an Iranian-supplied rocket able to reach Tel Aviv. Hamas denied the allegation.

"This is the state of Israel's answer to all those who call on Israel to examine itself, about how it defended its citizens," former defense minister Shaul Mofaz said on Israel Radio after the seizure of the ship was announced. "We have to act constantly, daily, to defend our citizens. This is further and emphatic proof that attempts by the other side do not stop."

Israeli officials offered no direct evidence that the supplies were bound for Hezbollah. They noted, however, that Iran is forbidden under a U.N. embargo to export arms. Iran is widely considered a major weapons supplier for Hezbollah and Hamas.

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