Israeli warships shadowed a Gaza-bound Libyan aid boat on Tuesday, despite Israeli reports that the vessel's captain was heading towards the nearby Egyptian port of El-Arish. The boat’s charterers in Libya said that the boat had not changed course.
AFP - Israeli warships warily shadowed a Libyan aid ship on Tuesday even as it appeared the vessel might be diverting its course from Gaza and heading for a nearby Egyptian port, officials said.
After the Israeli navy established contact with the ship, which had been intent on breeching Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, its Cuban captain announced he would sail to El-Arish, an Israeli official told AFP.
Public radio broadcast snippets of radio conversation in Spanish, which it said was between the captain and the navy on the new course he was charting.
However, Israeli warships continued to closely monitor the ship, fearing the move was a ruse, the official said.
It was not clear how many vessels were involved or how close they were.
Egyptian officials in El-Arish said permission had been granted for the ship to dock in the port, but gave no details.
But in Libya, an official of the charity that chartered the Amalthea, said the boat had not changed course.
"The ship is heading for Gaza and will not change course," said Khadafi Foundation executive director Yussef Sawan, adding that communications with the vessel were difficult.
Earlier Tuesday, a Libyan activist on board said they had been given an ultimatum to change course, but that was denied by Israel.
"Israeli authorities have given us until midnight tonight (2100 GMT) to change course and head to the port of El-Arish," Mashallah Zwei told AFP by satellite phone.
"Otherwise they are threatening to intercept the boat with their navy," said Zwei, a member of the Kadhafi Foundation charity which organised the shipment, adding that the crew had informed the navy it would study the request.
A military spokesman denied an ultimatum had been given, but instead "a clarification about what they already knew, that they could not go to Gaza."
"The navy has begun preparations for stopping the ship, should it attempt to violate the naval blockade," he told AFP.
Fears of a new standoff come six weeks after Israeli commandos launched a pre-dawn operation to prevent a flotilla of aid ships from breaching the blockade.
In the resulting skirmishes, nine Turks, including a dual US national, were shot dead and dozens of other people injured, including nine Israeli commandos.
As news broke of the military's contact with the vessel, public radio broadcast a crackly snippet of what it said was exchange between the navy and a person aboard the Amalthea, which was picked up by the station's monitor of foreign broadcasts.
"No weapons, no guns, no weapons on board," said a voice in heavily accented English to a background of radio static.
Zwei said the navy had "threatened to send their warships to intercept the boat and escort it toward the (southern Israeli) port of Ashdod if we do not change course.
"We explained to the Israeli authorities that our original destination was Gaza and that we are not here for a provocation," he said.
"We also specified that we are transporting only foodstuffs and medicines and we asked them to let us discharge our cargo in Gaza."
The 92-metre (302-foot) freighter left Greece on Saturday and was expected to arrive off Gaza's territorial waters on Wednesday, said the charity run by Seif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
The latest developments come a day after Israel's military published the results of an internal inquiry into the May 31 raid, which found that while mistakes had been made, the troops' use of live fire was "justified."
The report also made a point of saying no country in the world had ever managed "to stop a vessel at sea in a non-hostile manner."
Over the past week, Israel has made a flurry of diplomatic efforts to try to convince the organisers to change course and deliver the Almathea's cargo of 2,000 tonnes of foodstuffs and medicine to El-Arish.
As well as diplomatic channels, pressure was also being exerted upon the Amalthea's owner and its captain to change course, the Kadhafi Foundation said.
"Pressures are escalating at various levels on the owner of the vessel and its captain to force the ship to change its course and not to go to Gaza port," the foundation's website said.
Global pressure over the May 31 debacle forced Israel to significantly change its policy on Gaza, and now it only prevents the import of arms and goods it says could be used to build weapons or fortifications.
Date created : 2010-07-13