Israel seizes weapons believed for Palestine

Saturday, January 5, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Israeli naval commandos commandeered a cargo ship in the Red Sea hundreds of miles from Israel's shores, finding 50 tons of Iranian-made weapons meant for the Palestinian Authority on board, the Israeli army chief said Friday.

Israel said the cache proves Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has not abandoned violence, even as U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni tried Friday to nudge the Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward a formal truce.

The Palestinian Authority vehemently denied involvement in weapons smuggling. Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Israeli allegations were a "theatrical game" intended to sabotage Zinni's mission.

The commandos were flown to the scene by helicopters in an operation some in Israel compared to the daring 1976 rescue of Israeli hostages from a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda.

From rubber boats, the commandos, the Israeli equivalent of U.S. Navy SEALS, scaled the 4,000-ton vessel, Karine A., and overpowered 13 crew members, Israeli sources said. Not a single shot was fired.

Zinni raised the interception at a meeting with Arafat on Friday and demanded an explanation, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.

Zinni "expressed our strong condemnation of any attempt to escalate the conflict in the region by militant groups or others," Boucher said. Arafat told the envoy he would cooperate and carry out an investigation, Boucher said.

The vessel docked late Friday at a naval base in Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, and troops were cataloguing weapons.

Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said a first check revealed 50 tons of weapons and ammunition, including rockets with a range of 12 miles -- enough to reach most areas of Israel from Palestinian-controlled territory.

The interception was carried out near the tip of the Arabian Peninsula in an area of the Red Sea surrounded by Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Mofaz described the raid as "daring and complex."

"It was something right out of the movies," said Ronnie Daniel, military correspondent for Israel TV's Channel Two.

The operation was led by Israeli air force helicopters that refueled in midair to reach their destination, Israeli sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The helicopters dropped rubber boats, and the commandos then rappelled into the dinghies, the sources said. They scaled the hull of the cargo vessel and overpowered the crew members, some of whom were handcuffed in their sleeping quarters, the sources said.

Mofaz said the captain and several officers were members of the Palestinian naval police. Israeli officials said the vessel was bought several months ago by the Palestinian Authority, but would not say under which flag it had been sailing before then.

Its journey began in Dubai, and the crew intended to sail through the Suez Canal and dump the arms in crates that would wash up on the shore of the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials said.

Israeli military officials have said they believe weapons of increasing caliber and range are reaching the Palestinian territories via trucks crossing the Jordan River and through crudely dug tunnels along the border with Egypt.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a moderate who has been trying to work out a framework for a peace agreement with senior Palestinian officials, said the weapons seizure showed the Palestinians need to make a choice.

"They (the Palestinians) cannot continue playing the game. They have to make strategic decision whether they support terrorism or they are against it," Peres said in a statement.

The foreign minister said he would ask the international community to declare Iran a sponsor of terrorism.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, speaking on Iranian TV, rejected the allegations as baseless.

Zinni appeared upbeat about truce prospects, despite the discovery of the weapons cache.

"I am optimistic, I am hopeful and I feel that we have the conditions that are right to make progress this time," Zinni said in Ramallah, adding that he would make frequent trips to the region after returning to Washington early next week.

Arafat said he remained committed to a truce with Israel. Since a Dec. 16 speech in which Arafat called on all Palestinian factions to honor a cease-fire, violence has dropped sharply.

The only Israeli killed since then was a reserve soldier shot along the border with Jordan. It was not clear who carried out the attack, though it appeared the attackers came from Jordan.

Earlier Friday, Zinni had breakfast with Sharon, Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer at Sharon's sheep farm in the Negev Desert.

Sharon told Zinni that only American and European pressure would compel Arafat to crack down on Palestinian militants. He said he would not let Arafat leave Ramallah unless he arrests the leader of a radical PLO faction that assassinated an Israeli Cabinet minister in October.

Beyond the immediate aim of a formal truce, Zinni's larger goal is relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that collapsed a year ago amid the daily fighting.

Sharon demands a week of complete calm before going ahead with the truce plan drafted by CIA chief George Tenet. No Israeli has been killed by a Palestinian in three weeks, but Israel says there are still daily incidents that must stop entirely.

The Palestinians say they have helped reduce violence, and want a firm timetable for the sides to implement the truce plan.

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