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Israeli navy intercepts Egypt-bound ship with arms

Israeli navy intercepts Egypt-bound ship with arms

Israel intercepted a ship carrying a large delivery of weapons off the country's Mediterranean coast on Tuesday, saying the weapons were sent by Iran and Syria for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The incident was the latest in a string of Israeli naval operations against smugglers it accuses of arming Gaza's Hamas rulers. Israel has long contended that Iran and Syria provide arms and other support to Hamas and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered the takeover overnight Tuesday after receiving intelligence about the arms shipment.
"The only certain thing is the source of the weaponry was Iran, and there was a Syrian relay station as well," he said. "This is the main axis that provides the forces of terror in Lebanon and Gaza."
The military said the cargo vessel "Victoria" initially departed from the Syrian port of Lattakia before proceeding to Mercin in Turkey. From there it was headed for the port of Alexandria in Egypt when it was intercepted.
Israel said there were no signs that Turkey or Egypt were involved in the arms shipment.
Israel's military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, said at least three containers of weapons were uncovered on board. The ship was being towed to an Israeli port, where dozens of other containers on board were to be inspected.
Benayahu said Syria's fingerprints were all over the shipment, and that officials suspected the weapons were delivered on a pair of Iranian warships that sailed to Syria last month.
"We know, from the bills of lading and crew testimony, that they were in the Syrian port of Lattakia. Link this to the visit of the Iranian ships there not so long ago, and apparently we will be able to find _ I say this guardedly at this point _ more evidence of the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Gaza terror axis," he told Israel's Army Radio.
He gave no details on what types of weapons were seized. There was no immediate reaction from Hamas, Syria or Iran.
The Victoria is German-owned, operated by a French shipping company and was sailing under a Liberian flag, the military said. German, French and Liberian authorities were notified of the seizure.
The interception occurred about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Israel's Mediterranean coast .Israeli troops met no resistance. The military said the discovery was made during a routine anti-smuggling naval patrol.
Israel has maintained a naval blockade of Gaza since Hamas seized power nearly four years ago, saying the measure is needed to prevent the militant group from importing arms.
Israel says that to get around the blockade, Hamas routinely has arms shipments delivered to Egypt, and then smuggled into neighboring Gaza through a network of tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border.
Although the ship was intercepted outside of Israel's territorial waters, maritime law entitles Israel to search any merchant vessel it has reason to believe is carrying contraband to support Hamas, said Benjamin David, a former high-ranking officer in the military's legal department.
Even without prior evidence, if the ship's captain gave permission for the Israeli navy to board, the action is legal, David added.
The operation was reminiscent of the November 2009 Israeli takeover of the Iranian Francop vessel off the coast of Cyprus. Israel captured hundreds of tons of rockets, missiles, mortars, grenades and anti-tank weapons on board which it said were headed to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
In May 2001 off its coast, Israel captured the vessel Santorini, packed with explosives that Israel said were sent from Hezbollah to Palestinian militant groups.
In January 2002, Israeli forces stormed the Karine A freighter on the Red Sea, and confiscated what the military said was 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition headed for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
"Terror from the sea is something that we know well and we are trying to battle with," said Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitch, a military spokeswoman.
Israel's announcement that Turkey was not involved in the arms shipment appeared to be an effort to defuse any potential tensions with its former Mideast ally.
Last May, Israeli commandoes raided a Turkish ship trying to break a naval blockade of Gaza and killed nine pro-Palestinian activists on board. Each side claims it acted in self-defense.
In Jerusalem, visiting Cyprus President Demetris Christofias said his country will not cooperate with any future flotillas to Gaza. The Turkish ship that clashed with Israel last year stopped in Cyprus on its way to Gaza.