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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 21:56 GMT
US shift on Israeli arms seizure
Weapons from the seized cargo ship
Israel says the vessel was carrying arms from Iran
The United States has said there is clear evidence of official Palestinian involvement in what Israel says was an attempt last week to smuggle 50 tonnes of weapons to the territories by sea.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the US administration was waiting for an explanation from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but added that there was no proof so far that Mr Arafat or his deputies were implicated.

We find the fact that there are Palestinians involved in shipping these weapons deeply troubling

Richard Boucher,
US State Department
This was in marked contrast to Mr Boucher's remarks on Monday, when he reserved judgement, saying the facts of the incident had still to be established.

Monday's statement prompted Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh to accuse the US of deliberately downplaying the incident to discourage Israeli retaliation against the Palestinians.

Mr Sneh also suggested that the Americans wanted to avoid a confrontation with Iran, which Israel has accused of supplying the weapons.

If anything is revealed we will not hesitate to bring the culprits before a trial

Yasser Arafat
An Israeli Government spokesman, meanwhile, said Israel would release documents in the next few days that would prove the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, was directly involved in the operation.

"We have all the evidence, including the documents, that leads directly to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority," Daniel Ayalon, foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told Reuters.

Captain talks

Mr Boucher said he found the involvement of Palestinians in the shipment "deeply troubling".

Ship's captain Omar Akawi
Mr Akawi was speaking in prison
He added that remarks made by the seized ship's captain on Monday to the effect that he was "under orders" from an official in the Palestinian Authority were "credible".

Omar Akawi, who was arrested last Thursday along with 12 crewmen, also said in prison interviews with Israeli and US media that he had been a member of Mr Arafat's Fatah faction since 1976.

The Palestinian Authority has denied any involvement and has launched an investigation into the affair.

"If anything is revealed - and I personally do not think it will be - we will not hesitate to bring [the culprits] before a trial," Mr Arafat told reporters.

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, AP 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 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.

Iran has denied any connection with the arms.

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.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"The Israelis 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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