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Ship captain says weapons intended for Palestinians

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

JERUSALEM -- In a prison interview, the Palestinian naval captain captured by Israeli commandos with 50 tons of weapons on his ship said Monday he's a longtime member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement who undertook the risky operation to help the outgunned Palestinians defend themselves.

"I'm a soldier. I obeyed orders," said Omar Akawi, adding that he picked up the rockets, mortars and anti-tank missiles off Iran's coast in the Persian Gulf and that they were headed for Palestinian-controlled Gaza.

Akawi, captured Thursday along with 12 crewmen in the Red Sea, said he works in the Palestinian Transportation Ministry and received his instructions from an official in the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian leadership on Monday confirmed Akawi was a mid-ranking member of its naval unit, but continued to insist it had nothing to do with the weapons shipment.

"It's a kind of propaganda unfortunately. It's a false way to undermine the peace process," said Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian parliament speaker.

However, following a meeting between Arafat and the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, the Palestinian Authority said it would form a committee to investigate the ship and its cargo. The committee would report its findings to the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. No further details were immediately available.

"Arafat informed Solana that all those discovered to have any connection with the issue will be questioned and punished," said Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

The Israeli public, despondent after 15 months of violence, has embraced the ship's seizure on the high seas as a throwback to past military victories -- while officials used it to lambast Arafat, insisting any smuggling effort of this magnitude had to be approved at the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority.

Akawi gave interviews Monday to Israeli television and the Fox News Channel in the Ashkelon Prison on Israel's Mediterranean coast.

The seizure of the weapons overshadowed the four-day visit by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, who flew home Monday without reaching a formal cease-fire.

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his Cabinet would convene soon for a review of Israel's contacts with the Palestinian Authority -- a relationship now based largely on mutual recriminations.

Israel seized the ship in international waters, and said all 13 crewmen were Arabs, including four Palestinians. Yet, Arab nations have not denounced the Israeli action and no one has claimed ownership of the vessel or the weapons.

While expressing support for the Palestinian cause, Akawi appeared relaxed and said he hoped a Palestinian state might one day live in peace with Israel.

Describing himself as a Fatah member since 1976, Akawi said the operation was overseen by a Palestinian Authority official he identified as Adel Awadallah.

Israel says Awadallah is in charge of "smuggling operations" for the Palestinians, while the Palestinians have declined to discuss his position.

Akawi said he knew the operation had a high risk of failure, but he agreed to do it because "it's the Palestinian right to defend ourselves."

Akawi said he believed that Iran and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah were involved. One of his Palestinian crewmen had received training from Hezbollah in Lebanon and recognized a Hezbollah man when the weapons were being loaded, Akawi said.

Israel said the weapons were loaded at Iran's Qeys island, just off the country's southwest coast.

As Akawi was bringing the shipment to the Red Sea, Arafat on Dec. 16 called for an end to all attacks against Israel. "That's when I was midway," Akawi said. "I expected to receive an order to stop." But he said he spoke with Awadallah in late December and "he did not tell me to stop."

The captain said the plan was to go through the Suez Canal to Alexandria, Egypt, where three smaller vessels would pick up the weapons. Loaded in airtight containers, the weapons would then be placed in Mediterranean waters and allowed to drift to the Gaza coast.

At one point Akawi told Awadallah there was little chance the operation would succeed, saying Israel, the United States, or Egypt, which controls the Suez Canal, could all stop the ship and confiscate the weapons.

"Leave it to God," Awadallah said, according to Akawi.

Akawi said he did not know if senior Palestinian leaders were aware of the shipment, with an estimated value of tens of millions of dollars, an immense sum for the impoverished Palestinians.

But Sharon insisted Arafat was behind the operation.

"When Arafat gave the instruction to purchase the firearms discovered on the ship, he made a strategic choice -- to bring about regional deterioration which would lead to war," Sharon said Sunday at Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, where the weapons were displayed.

Last month, Israel declared Arafat "irrelevant," but agreed to keep working on a truce with his government. While Israeli security officials are still meeting with their Palestinian counterparts, Sharon branded the Palestinian Authority a "major player in the network of international terrorism."

Before leaving, Zinni gave both sides some "homework" to be completed before his expected return Jan. 18. Israel is to further ease restrictions on Palestinians, while the Palestinians are required to arrest more militants and dismantle militant groups.

Salana held separate talks Monday on a possible cease-fire with Sharon and Qureia.


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