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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 15:03 GMT
Analysis: The CIA and the arms ship
Israel displays rockets seized from the ship
Ownership of the vessel has still to be proved
Jonathan Marcus

There are widespread reports in the United States that the Central Intelligence Agency played an important part in identifying and tracking a ship packed with arms seized by Israel earlier month.

For all the drama on the high seas, this remains a murky and shadowy business

Israeli naval commandos who intercepted the Karine A freighter in the Red Sea found large quantities of Iranian-made weapons destined, according to the Israelis, for the Palestinian Authority.

A senior Israeli intelligence team has been visiting Washington and a number of European capitals, briefing their opposite numbers on the Karine A affair.

The Israelis say that the Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat had himself approved the arms-smuggling operation.

So far, however, the Bush administration has been reluctant to condemn Mr Arafat outright.

Sophisticated smuggling

Evidence seen by the BBC suggests a highly sophisticated smuggling operation.

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

The Iranians, the Lebanese fundamentalist group Hezbollah, and key officials in the Palestinian administration of Yasser Arafat all appear to have been involved.

The aim of the operation was to bring in a huge quantity of explosives and long-range weaponry enabling Palestinian fighters to attack virtually any target inside Israel.

Military experts say the weapons would have fundamentally altered the strategic balance in the region.

They could have precipitated an all-out war between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The Israelis say Mr Arafat himself approved the smuggling operation and that this evidence has been provided to the governments that they have briefed.

But it now appears that the Americans may well have known about the smuggling operation almost from its inception.

America's role

Reports from Washington citing a variety of unidentified intelligence officials suggest that the Americans played a key role in identifying and tracking the ship.

Ariel Sharon with weapons seized on board the ship
Ariel Sharon described the vessel as the 'Ship of terror'

Israel denies this. Whatever its own role in the affair, the Bush administration has been slow to echo Israel's outright condemnation of Mr Arafat.

The Americans clearly do not want a full-scale rupture with the Palestinian Authority; a step that would signal the end for any hope of reviving the peace process.

For all the drama on the high seas, this remains a murky and shadowy business.

The facts have still not been fully established - but there are those in the United States who are beginning to question the benefit of maintaining ties between Washington and the Palestinian Authority.

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