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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 21:54 GMT
Israel 'seizes arms shipment'
A photo of the confiscated weapons with labelling in Hebrew handed out at an Israeli press conference
Israel says the weapons had come from Iran
Israel has intercepted a boat in the Red Sea which it says was carrying 50 tonnes of weapons destined for the Palestinian Authority - casting a shadow over a fresh peace mission to the region by top US envoy Anthony Zinni.

But the Palestinian Authority says it knew nothing about the shipment, which included rockets, mines and anti-tank missiles, and has accused Israel of trying to sabotage the envoy's visit with propaganda.

[Mr Zinni] pressed Chairman Arafat to find an explanation of the situation

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher

Despite the seizure of the weapons, US-brokered security talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis are to resume, Mr Zinni has announced.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Mr Zinni had condemned the smuggling of arms and "pressed Chairman Arafat to find an explanation" for the weapons shipment.

The Palestinian leader, who has denied all knowledge of the shipment, had offered Mr Zinni his "full cooperation" and a "full investigation" into the incident, he said.

'Double game'

Shaul Mofaz, Israeli Chief of Staff, said commandos had boarded the boat 500 kilometres (300 miles) from the Israeli port of Eilat on Thursday.

Mr Mofaz said the vessel belonged to the Palestinian Authority and its contents were proof that the authority was "infected by terrorism from head to toe".

He said the arms had come from Iran, an allegation which the Iranian government later denied.

Under the terms of the Oslo peace accords the Palestinian security forces are armed only with small arms - Kalashnikov assault rifles and M16s.

The BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says the latest interception of the boat is a severe embarrassment for Mr Arafat, as he tries hard to regain credibility in the eyes of the Americans.

Zinni 'optimistic'

Despite the war of words over the arms seizure, Mr Zinni expressed optimism after separate talks with both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"I am optimistic, hopeful and feel that we have the conditions that are right to make progress this time," he said.

US envoy Anthony Zinni
Mr Zinni is faced by conflicting demands

"We will hold trilateral meetings again, resume where we left off from the last mission."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that three-way-talks between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and the CIA had been arranged for Sunday.

The BBC's Orla Guerin says that the best hope for Mr Zinni's mission is modest progress.

Mr Zinni wants Israel and the Palestinians to implement a truce-to-talks plan drawn up last June by CIA director George Tenet.

But our correspondent says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's continued demand for seven days' complete calm before he will restart peace talks could delay negotiations indefinitely.

Mr Zinni's last mission was suspended in December as violence in the Middle East increased.


The Israeli army later announced it had pulled out from a West Bank Palestinian village where it said troops had killed a Palestinian when they came under fire during an incursion on Friday.

Palestinian sources said up to 20 armoured vehicles, including tanks, had moved into the autonomous village of Tel, near Nablus, and a curfew had been imposed during the incursion.

Security officials said that the dead Palestinian had been armed with an M16 assault rifle and wearing a bullet-proof vest.

The killing had averted a planned "bloody incident," General Gershon Yitzhak, head of the Israeli forces in the West Bank, said in a radio broadcast.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"There are still many questions left unanswered"
See also:

04 Jan 02 | Middle East
US envoy resumes Mid-East mission
31 Dec 01 | Middle East
Anger over Gaza killings
30 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israel sees peace hope
29 Dec 01 | Middle East
Palestinians urge return of US envoy
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
US recalls Mid-East envoy
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
US blocks Mid-East observers
28 Nov 01 | Middle East
US Mid-East envoy calls for change
08 May 01 | Middle East
Israel sounds the alarm
29 Nov 01 | key documents
The Mitchell report
08 May 01 | Middle East
Arms haul sparks new fears
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