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Israel says seized big Hezbollah-bound arms ship
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli naval commandos seized a ship carrying hundreds of tons of Iranian-supplied arms, including rockets that can hit Israeli cities, to Lebanon's Hezbollah group, Israeli officials said on Wednesday.
Commodore Ran Ben-Yehuda, speaking as the search of the Antigua-flagged Francop was under way in Israel's Mediterranean port of Ashdod, said the weapons were found behind civilian goods in at least 40 shipping containers.
The shipment, he said, was enough to keep Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during a 34-day war in 2006, supplied for a month of fighting.
"The weapons came from Iran and were meant for Hezbollah," Ben-Yehuda told reporters at Ashdod port, where wooden crates of bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and variety of rockets which he said were unloaded from the ship filled a dock.
He said the containers were picked up by the Francop in the Egyptian port of Damietta and were to have reached Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria.
Syria and Iran denied the Israeli allegations.
"It's 10 times the size of the cargo on the Karine-A," Ben-Yehuda said, referring to a freighter with 50 tons of arms that Israel seized in 2002. Israel said that vessel's cargo was supplied by Iran and destined for Palestinians in Gaza.
Israel believed Egypt and the vessel's crew were unaware weapons were being shipped on the Francop, Ben-Yehuda said.
He said naval commandos boarded the ship overnight without incident after receiving the captain's permission to inspect his cargo. The interception, the military said, was carried out in international waters about 100 miles from Israel.
Ben-Yehuda said Israeli intelligence constantly kept taps on suspected smuggling lanes.
At Ashdod port, some of the crates on display were still wedged in containers behind white sacks of polyethelene in what the Israeli military said had been a bid to hide the weaponry.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that weapons discovered on the vessel could have been used to attack Israeli cities.
But in public comments on the incident, Israeli leaders gave no hint they were contemplating military action against Hezbollah in response to the alleged weapons smuggling attempt. The Israeli-Lebanese frontier has been largely quiet since 2006.
A Cyprus-based shipping source told Reuters the ship had been due to call in Lebanon.
The 8,622 deadweight ton ship was due to have arrived on November 1 at Damietta and was last seen on October 31 in the Mediterranean sea between Lebanon and Cyprus, according to AISLive ship tracking data on Reuters.
The vessel is owned by German shipping company Reederei Gerd Bartels, based near the port of Hamburg. Asked to comment, Mirko Bartels of the private shipping firm told Reuters: "We have nothing to say."
An official with Cyprus-based United Feeder Services told Reuters it had acted as the time charterer and carrier for the Francop, charged with loading and discharging the vessel.
"The vessel sailed from Damietta, and was bound for Limassol, Cyprus and then Lebanon, Turkey and back to Damietta," the official, who declined to be named, said.
"We are not allowed to open up containers to see what is inside," he said. "We do not have much information. We just know that the vessel was seized and was forced to go to Ashdod to check the cargo."
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Jonathan Saul in London and Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Editing by Richard Williams)
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