Israel: Commandos seize huge Iranian arms shipment

JERUSALEM — Open crates from a cargo ship seized Wednesday by Israel revealed dark green missiles inside. Containers from the vessel bore writing in English that said “I.R. Iranian Shipping Lines Group.”

Israel alleged that the shipment of hundreds of tons of rockets, missiles, mortars, grenades and anti-tank weapons – the largest it ever seized – was headed for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Israel stopped the ship, named the Francop, off the coast of Cyprus and towed it to the port of Ashdod. It carried orange, red, white and blue containers piled three deep on its deck.

Rows of crates from the vessel were displayed on the dock, and inside were rockets, hand grenades, mortars and ammunition. At least 3,000 missiles were on board, the Israeli military said.

The seizure spotlighted the dangerous tensions between Israel and Iran. Israel considers Iran a strategic threat because of its nuclear program and long-range missile development, dismissing Iranian denials that it is building nuclear weapons.

Among the weaponry displayed were Katyusha rockets. One of the long skinny missiles sat atop a pile of storage boxes the military had labeled in Hebrew “rocket 122 mm.” The 122 mm Katyusha was the main weapon used against Israel by Hezbollah in a monthlong war in 2006. During that war, about 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, most of them civilians, and about 160 people were killed in Israel.

Some of the weapons were hidden in the Francop’s containers behind stacked bags of polyethylene labeled in English “NPC National Petrochemical Company,” and the flame logo used by both the company and the Iranian Petroleum Ministry.

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

The Francop’s containers were carefully unloaded on army forklifts to avoid accidental detonation. Some of the containers had the initials “I.R.I.S.L.” printed on one side and the fuller title, “I.R. (Islamic Republic of) Iran Shipping Lines Group” on the other. Explosives experts and dog-sniffing units examined the haul.

The Israeli military said cargo certificates showed the ship departed an Iranian port for Syria, from where the weapons would be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The military did not show the documents, and Syria denied the vessel was carrying weapons.

Iran has never acknowledged giving weapons to Hezbollah. Proof of large-scale Iranian weapons shipments to its proxy forces on Israel’s borders could reinforce the views of Israelis who favor their military making a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The seizure may also complicate relations with Egypt, where Israel says the weapons were loaded.

Wednesday’s dramatic operation allowed Israel to showcase its claims of weapons smuggling by Iran and Syria, which both nations have long denied. It also provided Israel with a chance to highlight what it considers Iranian mischief amid Western allegations that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons.

The seizure came a day after Israeli officials said Hamas tested an Iranian rocket that can hit metropolitan Tel Aviv – bringing to the fore Israeli fears that both Hezbollah and Hamas are rearming for more confrontations following the 2006 Lebanon war and last winter’s Gaza war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew clear conclusions.

“Whoever still needed indisputable proof that Iran continues to send weapons to terror organizations got it today in a clear and unequivocal manner. Iran sends these weapons to terror organizations in order to hit Israeli cities and kill civilians,” he said in a statement. “The time has come for the international community to put real pressure on Iran for it to halt this despicable activity and back Israel when it defends itself against terrorists and their patrons.”

In Tehran, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem dismissed Israeli allegations the ship carried arms.

“Unfortunately, some official pirates in the seas, sometimes in the name of the navy, sometimes in the name of inspection, obstruct trade movement between Syria and Iran,” al-Moallem said a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart.

“This ship does not carry Iranian weapons to Syria and does not contain military material to manufacture weapons in Syria. This ship carries imported goods from Syria to Iran,” al-Moallem added. His comments in Arabic were carried by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station and other Lebanese stations.

It was unclear why al-Moallem said the ship was headed in the opposite direction of that stated by Israel. Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment in Damascus. Iran, Lebanon and Hezbollah had no comment.

The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war ended with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that prohibited Iran from rearming the Islamic militants. Israel claims that Hezbollah has since been restocked with upward of 40,000 rockets but has been unable to prove it.

“We have seen the press reports and remain extremely concerned about Hezbollah’s efforts to re-arm in direct violation of various U.N. Security Council resolutions,” said State Department spokesman Noel Clay. “Hezbollah continues to pose a significant threat to peace and security in Lebanon and the region.”

Rear Adm. Roni Ben-Yehuda, the deputy Israeli navy commander, said hundreds of tons of weapons were found on the ship, but the weapons were only “a drop in the ocean” of arms being sent to Hezbollah.

Israel has conducted daring naval operations before, but never seized anything close to this in scope.

In May 2001 off its coast, Israel captured the vessel Santorini, packed with explosives that Israel said were being sent from Hezbollah to Palestinian militant groups.

In January 2002, Israeli forces stormed the Karine A freighter on the Red Sea, and confiscated what the military said was 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition headed for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Ben-Yehuda said the Francop carried 10 times as many weapons as the Karine A.

Forces from other countries, including the U.S. last month, have stopped ships suspected of carrying arms. Sudan suspects Israel was behind air raids earlier this year on convoys smuggling weapons from Sudan to Egypt en route to Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Most recently, reports surfaced that Israel had a role in the boarding last summer of a Russian ship that was said to be carrying anti-aircraft missiles for Iran, but no evidence has surfaced to back them up.

Acting on intelligence reports, the Israeli military said Wednesday that one of its naval units patrolling the area caught up with the Francop and boarded it peacefully, in coordination with NATO, Ben-Yehuda said.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said the crew, led by a Polish captain, was not aware of the Francop’s contents and cooperated fully.

Israel said the ship arrived in Beirut from Iran Oct. 28 and left the next day with a declared destination of Turkey. Instead, Israel said, it sailed to Damietta, Egypt, where the weapons were loaded. Its next destination was supposed to be Latakia in Syria, via Cyprus, Israel said.

The vessel, sailing under an Antiguan flag, was operated by United Feeder Services, a Cyprus-based shipping company. An employee of the company’s chartering department in Cyprus who would not identify himself confirmed the ship’s destination but insisted the company did not know what was in the containers or where the cargo originated.

An Egyptian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case with the media could not confirm or deny whether the ship passed through Egypt and said it was impossible to search every vessel that enters its ports.

The Lebanon-Israel border has remained largely quiet since the 2006 war, but tensions have remained high because of Israeli fears Hezbollah has acquired new long-range missiles.

Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, said Iranian support for Hezbollah is well known.

“It’s assumed that the normal supply routes are through Syria,” she said. “There are probably practical reasons, but it’s a risk given that they are sailing through waters that are closely monitored.

© 2009 The Associated Press