Israel intercepts ship with 'Gaza-bound weapons'


ISRAELI NAVAL commandos have intercepted a ship in the Mediterranean, believed to be carrying arms destined for Gaza, and have escorted the vessel to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Soldiers from the elite Shayetet 13, Israel’s navy seals, boarded the German ship Victoriain international waters in the Mediterranean yesterday morning, 200 miles (320km) west of the Israeli coast.

The commandos radioed the Romanian captain identifying themselves as the Israeli army and asked for permission to board. According to Israeli military sources, both the captain and crew were unaware that the ship was carrying weapons.

Three containers were opened by the troops to confirm that weapons were aboard and the vessel was escorted to Ashdod.

The Israeli military said Chinese-manufactured land-to-sea missiles with a range of 35km were on the ship and the military spokesman released photos showing rockets and missiles found. The full extent of the seizure will not be known until all the containers are emptied at Ashdod port.

Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak said the decision to intercept Victoriawas taken after intelligence was received. “We suspected that it was carrying the beginning of a system that could impair our operational freedom along the Gaza coast,” he said.

Israel maintains a land and naval blockade of the Gaza strip, a coastal enclave controlled by Hamas.

The Victoriahad sailed from the Syrian port of Latakia to Mersin, Turkey. It was seized while on its way from Turkey to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. From there, the Israeli military said the arms would be transported to Gaza, probably overland via Sinai.

Even though the ship originally set sail from Syria, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu pointed the finger of blame at Iran. “We are currently collecting information and the one thing that is certain is that the weapons are from Iran with a relay station in Syria,” he said.

“The source of the weapons is Iran, which continues to try to arm terrorist forces against Israel. It is our right and duty to stop the smuggling of these weapons.”

The Iranian foreign ministry dismissed the allegations. A spokesman said: “Don’t trust Israeli media news. There is no such thing. We do not confirm it in any way.”

Mr Netanyahu stressed that all nations connected to the ship had been updated on the situation. The Victoria is German-owned, but flew a Liberian flag and was operated by a French company with a Ukrainian connection. Although the vessel had set sail from Turkey, Israel believes that there was no Turkish involvement in the affair.

Israeli officials believe that Iran and Syria co-operated in transferring arms aboard the vessel at Latakia. The new route, via Turkey and Egypt, comes after Israel successfully intercepted a number of Iranian attempts to smuggle weapons to Gaza via ships sailing through the Red sea.

Israeli officials stressed that the maritime interception was in accordance with international law as the weapons were not listed on the cargo bill carried by the Victoria.

In 2003, Israeli commandos intercepted the Karine Ain the Red sea, with 50 tonnes of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition said to be destined for Gaza.

In 2009, the Israeli navy intercepted the Iranian vessel Francopoff the coast of Cyprus, carrying hundreds of tonnes of arms.