Israel navy seizes weapons boat 'en route to Gaza'

JERUSALEM; Israel's navy on Wednesday escorted into port a ship its commandos seized, saying it had arms from Iran bound for militants in the Gaza Strip, Israel's media reported.

Military specialists in the southern port of Ashdod would begin checking 39 containers on the deck of the "Victoria" to ascertain the exact amount and type of arms and munitions they contained, army radio reported.

Sappers would first check for booby traps, news website Ynet reported.

The military spokesman's office had no immediate statement.

The Liberian-flagged Victoria was intercepted Tuesday as it sailed about 200 nautical miles west of Israel's territorial waters.

It arrived at Ashdod in the early hours of Wednesday.

Top defence officials said earlier that its cargo included Chinese-made C704 anti-ship missiles, which would be a threat to Israeli naval patrols off the Gaza coast.

"(There are) two to four missiles, shore-to-sea missiles, of type C704, a missile with... a range of 35 kilometres (22 miles)," the deputy commander of the Israeli navy, Rear Admiral Rani Ben-Yehuda, told journalists.

"Anything within its range, of course, will find itself in danger."

Defence Minister Ehud Barak made an apparent reference to the same items.

"We suspect, we think, that among the weapons there is also the beginnings of an advanced system which could affect our freedom of action along the Gaza shores," he said.

During Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon's Hezbollah, guerrillas hit an Israeli warship off Beirut with an Iranian-made missile based on Chinese technology, killing four crewmen.

Israel said the Victoria had sailed from the Turkish port of Mersin, headed for Alexandria in Egypt, but that the arms originated in Iran and were destined for Gaza.

"On the boat we discovered many weapons destined for terror groups in the heart of Gaza," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We had clear evidence that the vessel was carrying weapons intended to harm Israel.

"The source of the weapons was Iran, which is trying to arm the Strip," he said, adding that Tehran had sent the arms through a "relay station" -- seemingly alluding to Syria.

Military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich said the weapons were believed to have been loaded in the Syrian port of Latakia, but she stressed that Turkey was not involved.

"As far as we understand it, Turkey has no relevance or connection to this event," said Leibovich. "This was from Syria to radical components in Gaza."

Barak said Israel had been tracking the vessel for several days.

The ship belongs to a German company, but was chartered by French firm, the army said, noting that commandos had boarded with the crew's permission.

"It was a compliant boarding -- there was no resistance, no violence used whatsoever," said Leibovich.

"The capture of the ship was done deep at sea in accordance with international practices," said Netanyahu.

Leibovich said weapons had been found in at least three shipping containers and the rest would be searched at Ashdod, adding that there were "hundreds of containers" on board.

The military released photos showing masked soldiers, apparently on the Victoria, opening crates filled with heavy machine guns, ammunition and mortar rounds.

Israel has frequently accused Iran and Syria of smuggling weapons to Gaza's Hamas rulers as well as to the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.

In November 2009, Israel said its navy had intercepted a ship carrying "hundreds of tonnes" of arms from Iran to Hezbollah in a raid dozens of miles off the Israeli coast.

The shipment was among the largest ever seized by Israel, dwarfing the 50 tonnes of weapons found aboard the Karine A seized in 2002 on its way to Gaza, which dealt a major blow to relations between the Palestinians and Washington.

In May 2001, the Israeli navy intercepted another boat, the Santorini, which was carrying 40 tonnes of rockets, anti-tank weaponry, mortars and automatic weapons for armed groups in Gaza.

Israel maintains a strict naval blockade on Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the territory.

Last year, the navy prevented a number of aid ships from reaching the coastal enclave.

In one incident, they stormed a six-ship flotilla in an operation that went disastrously wrong, with the deaths of nine pro-Palestinian activists from Turkey.
 
 
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