Navy intercepts ship carrying arms from Iran for Hezbollah
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The Israeli navy intercepted a ship which it claims was carrying hundreds of tonnes of Iranian weapons for the armed Islamist group Hezbollah. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak called the operation "a success" in the fight against arms trafficking.
Israeli naval commandos on Wednesday intercepted a ship Israel claims was carrying Iranian rockets, weapons and ammunition to Lebanon’s armed Islamist group Hezbollah.
The Antigua-flagged and German-owned vessel, named Francop, was brought to the Israeli port of Ashdod for inspection.
“We found hundreds of tonnes of arms hidden in dozens of containers,” deputy naval commander Rani Ben Yehuda told reporters. “The quantity of arms seized is at least 10 times more than on the Karin-A ship,” he added, referring to the 2002 interception of a ship carrying smuggled Iranian weapons.
Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Army Radio that several Katyushait
rockets had been found on board. Mortar shells, hand grenades and ammunition for AK-47 rifles were also found on the ship.
According to several news organisations, the Israeli military said an Iranian document was found on board, showing that the arms shipment originated from Iran. The paper was not, however, shown to reporters. An Israeli navy chief cited by the newspaper Haaretz said that the containers carrying rockets belonged to the Iranian commercial fleet.
An Israeli military success
The Francop was intercepted overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday around 100 nautical miles off the Israeli coast and inspected by members of the Israeli Commando 13 force. A military spokeswoman explained that all ships suspected of carrying weapons are investigated by the Israeli navy. “In this case it turned out to be true,” she added.
The ship’s documentation had raised suspicion because it was listed as being loaded in Egypt and destined for Syria, according to the Israeli news site Ynews.
Israeli President Shimon Peres hailed the interception as an “important achievement for the Israeli Defence Forces and the state of Israel”, while Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak called the operation "a new success in our struggle against weapons smuggling aimed at reinforcing terrorist organisations that are threatening the security of Israel."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that weapons discovered on the vessel could have been used to attack Israeli cities.
See no evil, admit no evil
The ship’s crew claim they did not know there were weapons in the containers, a statement confirmed by Major General Ben Yehuda. “We are certain the crew did not know anything, and even the Egyptians did not know what was loaded on board,” he told reporters.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem denied that the Francop was carrying weapons, and suggested the Israeli naval forces acted like “pirates”.
“Unfortunately official pirates have disrupted the movement of goods between Iran and Syria,” he told reporters on a visit to Tehran. “I stress, the ship was not carrying arms bound for Syria. It was carrying [commercial goods] from Syria to Iran.”
Contacted by the Agence France Presse, Hezbollah officials in Beirut refused to comment.
Israel has long accused arch-foes Syria and Iran of supplying weapons to Hezbollah and to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, which has been ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement since June 2007.
On Tuesday, a senior Israeli general warned that Hamas had successfully test-fired a rocket out to sea, and was capable of reaching Tel Aviv from Gaza.
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