Israel claims seizure of Palestinian arms shipment

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The Independent Online

A Palestinian-owned ship with a 50-ton cargo of arms destined for the Palestinian Authority was seized in the Red Sea yesterday, Israel said. The seizure, if confirmed, would deal a blow to renewed American peace efforts.

The Israelis said the captain and crew, who were taken prisoner in the raid, were members of Yasser Arafat's naval police. The Israeli army chief, Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, said the shipment of mainly Iranian weapons – including Katyusha ground-to-ground rockets, mines and anti-tank missiles – was 50 times bigger than a consignment intercepted in the Mediterranean last May. He said the freighter, the Karin A, had been bought last year by the Palestinian Authority.

Such shipments are banned under the 1993 Oslo accords, which prevent the Palestinian Authority from acquiring anything heavier than sub- machine-guns and require its police to confiscate unauthorised weapons held by militias or individuals.

The timing of the announcement could not have been better for Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, or worse for Mr Arafat, the Palestinian president. It came soon after General Anthony Zinni, Washington's special envoy, met Mr Sharon at his ranch in the Negev desert and shortly before he met the Palestinian leader in Ramallah.

Mr Zinni said afterwards that despite the difficulties, he was confident he could succeed. "I am optimistic, I am hopeful and I feel that we have the conditions that are right to make progress this time." The general cut short a peace mission last month after a surge in violence, which has eased since Mr Arafat called for a halt to suicide bombings.

The Israelis briefed Mr Zinni about the seizure, which it said took place in international waters 500km (300 miles) from the Israeli port of Eilat on Thursday. It reinforced Mr Sharon's determination to ostracise Mr Arafat and keep him in his West Bank administrative capital.

The Palestinians were stunned by the news. Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Information minister, told The Independent: "We have no knowledge of this vessel, which has no relationship to us. The Palestinian Authority has launched an immediate investigation. We are willing to have a third party investigate."

The ship is due in Eilat tonight. Israel has invited reporters and camera crews to witness the arrival.

Until then, the Israelis are parading the Karin A's capture, in an operation by a combined intelligence, naval and air task force, as confirmation that Mr Arafat is talking peace but preparing for war. The interception proved that Mr Arafat's government was "infected by terrorism from head to toe", said Lt-Gen Mofaz, the army chief. Ra'anan Gissin, Mr Sharon's spokesman, said: "Not only is Arafat not collecting illegal weapons, he's importing new ones in order to escalate the conflict."

Shimon Peres, the dovish Foreign Minister, who has been pressing for a resumption of peace talks, said the shipment marked a turning point for the Palestinian Authority. "They cannot continue playing games," he said. "They have to make a strategic decision, whether they support terrorism or are against it." He called on the international community to declare Iran a terror- supporting state.

Israeli sources speculated that the weapons might have been intended to land on the Sinai or Saudi Arabian coasts, then smuggled through tunnels from Egypt into the Gaza Strip.

Yesterday, Israeli troops entered Tel, a Palestinian- controlled village in the West Bank, arresting three alleged militants and killing a fourth. Israel eased its blockade of Palestinian communities and West Bank Muslims were admitted to Jerusalem to pray at al-Aqsa mosque.