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Libyan Gaza-bound aid ship enters Egyptian port

EL ARISH, Egypt (Reuters) - A Libyan-chartered ship carrying aid for Palestinians reached an Egyptian port on Wednesday after altering its course following a warning from Israel’s navy not to head to the blockaded Gaza Strip.

An Egyptian official said the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea arrived in El Arish, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast about 45 km (27 miles) south of the border with Gaza, in mid-evening and would begin unloading cargo.

“Medical supplies and passengers will enter Gaza through the Rafah border (crossing), while food will enter through the Awja border,” said Captain Gamal Abdel Maqsoud, who is in charge of the port.

He said Egypt’s Red Crescent would be responsible for taking the goods over both borders and had trucks waiting in El Arish.

Israel had vowed to turn away or seize the Amalthea -- renamed “Hope” by activists -- rather than let it access Gaza, whose Islamist Hamas rulers the Jewish state wants isolated.

Israel was also mindful of international censure simmering since their commandos killed nine Turks while boarding another Gaza-bound aid ship in Mediterranean high seas on May 31.

Outcry at the bloodshed aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara prompted Israel to ease overland trade with Gaza. But it kept the sea blockade, citing a risk of arms shipments to Hamas.

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Youssef Sawani, director of a charity chaired by the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, which chartered the Amalthea, confirmed earlier that it had decided to divert the ship away from Gaza for safety reasons.

“It was unacceptable for us to enter into a confrontation and risk bloodshed” and that the boat would head to El Arish harbor, from which Egypt would allow its cargo to reach Gaza.

“The aims of Amalthea have been achieved without bloodshed and the result is gains for the Palestinians,” Sawani added.


Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh urged the activists not to let their ship be diverted from the territory’s shore and called in a speech for more pro-Palestinian “freedom flotillas.”

“The sea and land convoys must continue,” he said. “We hope we can depend on Islamic nations to help us lift the blockade.”

An Israeli flag flutters in the wind as the Mavi Marmara, a Gaza-bound ship that was raided by Israeli commandos, is escorted by a naval vessel (not seen) to the Ashdod port in this May 31, 2010 file photo. Israel's military failed to prepare adequately for what turned into a deadly raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, according to findings of a military inquiry quoted by the Israeli media on July 12, 2010. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/Files

Egypt said late on Tuesday that the Amalthea had requested and been granted permission to dock in El Arish, and that authorities planned to transfer its declared haul of 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine overland to neighboring Gaza.

Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said the cargo could go through to Gaza.

“Anyone who wants to bring materials there which are not dangerous materials -- munitions, etcetera -- can bring them through El Arish, can bring them through the (Israeli) port of Ashdod,” Meridor said on Israel Radio.

The ship appeared to have been held up in international waters the previous night. Israel Radio aired what it said was a recording of the Cuban captain, identified as Antonio, informing the navy that his engineers were fixing mechanical problems.

Ayache Derradji, an Al Jazeera reporter on the ship, said then it was considering options such as heading for Gaza after entering Egyptian waters, where Israel’s navy would not follow.

The inconsistent accounts prompted an Israeli official to suggest there was disagreement between the Amalthea’s hired 12-member crew and some 10 passengers determined to defy the Gaza blockade and flag the plight of the territory’s 1.5 million Palestinians, many of them aid-dependent.

Israel Radio also aired what it said was the navy’s warning to the captain that he would be held responsible for any showdown at sea.

On June 5, the navy commandeered the Irish-owned aid ship Rachel Corrie after it refused orders to turn back or dock in Ashdod for its cargo to be vetted for overland transfer to Gaza.

An Israeli inquiry by a military panel into the navy’s killing of the Turkish activists concluded on Monday there had been faults in planning the May 31 interception but that commandos had resorted to live gunfire in self-defense.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, Lamine Ghanmi in Rabat, Salah Sarrar in Tripoli, Saleh Salem in Gaza, Alexander Dziadosz in Cairo and Erika Solomon in Dubai, Editing by Mark Heinrich