Israeli navy intercepts arms ship

Israel said on Wednesday its navy intercepted a container ship in the Mediterranean carrying rockets destined for Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and took the vessel to an Israeli port.

Israeli media reports said the weaponry was supplied by Iran.

”There were Katyusha [rockets], whose purpose is to hit civilians,” Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told army radio.

He did not give any quantities, saying the ship was still being unloaded in Israel and voicing doubt its crew knew munitions were on aboard.

Asked if the weaponry had been earmarked for Hezbollah, Vilnai said: ”Yes. It strengthens [the group] and improves its long-range firing capability into Israel.”

Hezbollah launched more than 4 000 rockets into Israel during a 2006 war and Israeli officials have said the group has rearmed since the 34-day conflict.

An Israeli military spokesperson said the navy, ”performing routine checks”, spotted a cargo vessel flying an Antiguan flag 160km from the Israeli coast on Tuesday night.

”They suspected it was carrying weapons, and after an initial inspection, munitions were found,” she said.

Israel Radio’s military affairs correspondent identified the vessel as the Francop, a 137m-long container ship, and said it was docked at Ashdod port, south of Tel Aviv.

Israel’s Channel 10 television said Israel had advance information about the vessel. Military sources said naval commandos stormed the ship in international waters.

The Defence Ministry said it was boarded near Cyprus.

An official statement quoted Defence Minister Ehud Barak as saying the munitions were earmarked for ”the terrorist arena in the north”, an apparent reference to Hezbollah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a separate statement, said the weapons found on the vessel could have ”hit Israeli cities”.

The largest weapons-smuggling ship intercepted by the Israeli navy was the Karin A, a vessel boarded in 2002 and which carried tons of weapons that Israel said Iran had sent to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. — Reuters

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