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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 00:38 GMT
Arms ship captain acted 'under orders'
Weapons from the seized cargo ship
Israel says the vessel was carrying arms from Iran
The captain of the ship seized by Israeli commandos and found to be carrying 50 tonnes of weapons has said he was acting "under orders" from an official in the Palestinian Authority.

If anything is revealed - and I personally do not think it will be - we will not hesitate to bring (the culprits) to justice

Yasser Arafat

Omar Akawi, who was arrested last Thursday along with 12 crewmen, also said in prison interviews with Israeli and US media that he was a long-term member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Mr Arafat announced an inquiry into the affair, although his officials continued to deny having anything to do with it, describing Israel's statements as propaganda.

Israel has said the ship belongs to the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has accused Mr Arafat of being a key figure in international terrorism.

Ship's captain Omar Akawi
Mr Akawi was speaking in prison

Mr Akawi, who said he had been a member of Fatah since 1976, said he was carrying the weapons to help Palestinians defend themselves.

According to the Associated Press, Mr Akawi said the arms shipment was overseen by Palestinian Authority official Adel Awadallah.

"I'm a soldier. I obeyed orders," Mr Akawi said.

The Palestinian Authority has confirmed that Mr Awaki is a middle ranking member of its naval unit. It has not commented on Mr Awadallah.

Mr Arafat announced the investigation soon after meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Mr Arafat said he would ask the US, EU, Russia and the UN to play a role in the inquiry.

Mr Solana is in the region to try to kick-start peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. A peace mission led by US envoy Anthony Zinni that ended on Monday was partly overshadowed by the row over the arms ship.

Iran link

Mr Akawi said he picked up the arms off Iran's coast in the Gulf. He said he believed Iran and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah were involved in the shipment.

Israeli army photo of seized ship
Iran and the Palestinians have denied any connection with the arms

He said he had planned to take the boat through the Suez Canal to Alexandria, Egypt. Smaller vessels were then due to pick up the weapons, load them in airtight containers and let them drift on to the Gaza coast, the Associated Press reported.

The news came as the specialist shipping newspaper Lloyd's List said the captured ship, the Karine A, may belong to an Iraqi national.

Lloyd's List names the current owner of the ship as Iraqi national Ali Mohammed Abbas.

Documents quoted by the paper are said to show that Mr Abbas bought the vessel from its former owners, a Lebanese shipping company, on 31 August last year.

The paper says it has established that it was previously known as the Rim K, and registered in Lebanon.

If the ownership is confirmed, it could undermine Mr Sharon's claim that Mr Arafat personally ordered the arms shipment and that the Palestinian Authority was "a major player in the networks of world terrorism spearheaded by Iran".

Iran has denied any connection with the arms.

Iraq's cabinet called Israel's seizing of the boat "a crime of piracy", though it made no mention of any Iraqi involvement.

The vessel was seized by Israeli forces in international waters in the Red Sea early on Thursday and is being held in the port of Eilat.

Its cargo included Katyusha rockets with a 20-kilometre (12-mile) range, anti-tank rockets, mortar bombs, sniper rifles, mines and ammunition.

Israeli authorities said the weapons were mainly Iranian-made.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"The Israelis's are disappointed the capture has not created international outrage"
See also:

06 Jan 02 | Middle East
US envoy optimistic over Mid-East talks
05 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms row mars peace mission
30 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israel sees peace hope
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
US blocks Mid-East observers
28 Nov 01 | Middle East
US Mid-East envoy calls for change
29 Nov 01 | key documents
The Mitchell report
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