JERUSALEM – Israel’s navy seized a cargo ship Wednesday, intercepting what officials described as 300 tons of weapons being smuggled from Iran to Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas.
The haul was the largest in Israel’s decades of efforts to curb the flow of arms to its militant Middle East foes.
Hundreds of crates – some opened to reveal rockets, mortar shells and boxes of grenades and bullets – lined the dock in Israel’s port of Ashdod hours after the predawn naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea near Cyprus. By evening, Israeli forces were still unloading the 40 containers of armaments reported found aboard the Antigua-flagged vessel Francop, which remained under guard in the port.
The weapons, including hundreds of Grad-type Katyusha rockets, were concealed beneath civilian goods and enclosed in a plastic material capable of fooling electronic scanners, Israeli officials said.
Rear Adm. Roni Ben-Yehuda, the deputy Israeli navy commander, said the cache was “a drop in the ocean” of arms being shipped to Hezbollah, an Islamic militia that pelted Israel with rockets during a monthlong war three years ago.
Israeli officials made the most of the seizure to bolster their claim that Iran, with Syria’s complicity, is arming enemies of the Jewish state, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that bar Iran from exporting weapons. Iran and Syria reject the allegation.
“Today the whole world can see the large gap between Syria and Iran’s statements and their actual activities,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said. “The ship’s arrest is not only of critical military importance, but also of political importance. Facts cannot be argued with.”
Captured containers on display in the port bore Iranian shipping codes in English – IRISL on one side, I.R. Iranian Shipping Lines Group on the other.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman, said a cargo certificate gave the containers’ origin as the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Ben-Yehuda said the shipment was headed for Latakia, Syria’s principal port.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, speaking to reporters during a visit to Iran, acknowledged Wednesday that the commandeered vessel had been sailing to his country but denied any weapons were aboard, according to Iran’s Mehr news agency. Iran denied sending weapons. Hezbollah issued no response.
Israeli officials said the Francop picked up the weapons in Damietta, Egypt.
An official of United Feeder Services, the Cyprus-based shipping company that leased the 450-foot commercial vessel from German owners, told Israel’s Ynet news agency that the company did not know what was inside the containers.
Israeli officials said they believed that Egypt’s government, the vessel’s Polish captain and its crew were unaware of any weapons.