Israels navy seizes arms smuggling ship

Israeli navy commandos seized a ship Nov. 4 that defense officials said was carrying hundreds of tons of weapons from Iran bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas — the largest arms shipment Israel has ever commandeered.

Soldiers boarded the freighter ship, flying the flag of Antigua, and discovered the arms and ammunition, disguised as commercial freight, according to the IDF spokespersons office. The ship was stopped by a special naval force about 100 miles off the coast of Israel, near Cyprus.

The ship was then taken to Israel’s Ashdod port for further inspection. At least 3,000 missiles were on board, the Israeli military said, and containers from the vessel bore writing in English that said “I.R. Iranian Shipping Lines Group.”

The Israeli military said an Iranian document was found on board, showing that the arms shipment originated from Iran, although the paper was not shown to reporters.

The ship carried more than 60 tons of weapons, including Katyusha rockets, assault rifles, grenades and mortar shells, as well as an advanced anti-aircraft platform that so far has not made it to the region, Israel Radio reported.

Rear Admiral Roni Ben-Yehuda, the deputy Israeli navy commander, said that despite its size, the shipment of weapons was “a drop in the ocean” of arms being shipped to Hezbollah.

The seizure was bigger than a similar haul in 2002, when Israeli military confiscated a vessel with 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition headed for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israel said the huge weapons shipment backed up its long-standing contention that Iran is supplying large quantities of arms to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Israeli military officials said the ship’s journey started in Iran, and it arrived a week ago in Beirut. The next stop was Damietta, Egypt, where the weapons were loaded, they said, although an Egyptian government official said it was “illogical” to think that Egypt is shipping weapons to Hezbollah. Ben Yehuda said the ship was headed for Latakia, Syria.

Iran and Syria are close allies and Hezbollah’s principle backers. Israel accuses Syria and Iran of supplying Hezbollah with weapons using air, sea and land routes — including through the port of Latakia. If true, Israel’s claim would bolster allegations that Syria has been complicit in getting weapons to Hezbollah. — jta & ap