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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 21:59 GMT
Iran-Palestinian weapons link 'likely'
The ship Karine A intercepted by the Israelis in January
Yasser Arafat has denied involvement
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana has said it is likely there is a link between Iran and the Palestinian Authority over a shipload of weapons intercepted last month by the Israelis.

Mr Solana said if the link were proved, it would represent a significant change in the Middle East conflict.

There is no proof yet, but I think something like that may have happened.

Javier Solana

His comments follow United States endorsement of Israel's claims that a huge shipment of arms it intercepted was on its way from Iran to the Palestinians.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has also asserted that Iran has supplied thousands of Katyusha rockets to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah with which to attack Israel - a charge denied by both Iran and the Lebanese authorities.

'No such link for years'

Mr Solana - briefing the European Parliament in Strasburg on the Middle East - said it now seemed likely "there was a link between Iran and someone in the Palestinian Authority, and there had hardly been any contact of this kind for years".

He added that, in the latest outbreak of violence, the Palestinians "seem to have had access to a higher calibre of weapons than usual".
Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Katyusha rockets
Katyusha rockets are capable of hitting targets inside Israel

The discovery of the boat carrying weapons and subsequent Israeli retaliation had led to a collapse in confidence between the sides, and had increased mistrust to "unmanageable levels", Mr Solana said.

Israeli forces intercepted the freighter Karine A in the Red Sea on 3 January. They said it was carrying large quantities of Iranian-made weapons destined for the Gaza Strip - proof of a new and dangerous strategic alliance

Hizbollah Katyushas

On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres accused Iran of supplying Hizbollah with 10,000 Katyushas capable of hitting targets inside Israel.

But Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi dismissed Mr Peres' allegations as propaganda.

"These stories they made up are not the first and not the last," Mr Kharrazi told reporters in Tehran.

"It is natural that Israel would have enmity for Lebanese Hezbollah, since it was Lebanese Hezbollah that maintains the resistance and expelled Israel from southern Lebanon."

BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says it remains unclear whether hard-line elements in Tehran are stepping up support for groups fighting Israel.

He says sceptics think Israel is trying to demonise Iran on the eve of an important visit to Washington by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Last month, the US said there was clear evidence of official Palestinian involvement in the shipment.

See also:

15 Jan 02 | Middle East
Analysis: The CIA and the arms ship
07 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms ship 'owned by Iraqi'
10 Jan 02 | Middle East
Weapons ship mystery deepens
05 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms row mars peace mission
28 Jan 02 | Middle East
Palestinian official held over arms ship
08 Jan 02 | Middle East
US shift on Israeli arms seizure
08 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arms ship captain acted 'under orders'
12 Jan 02 | Middle East
Israeli navy attacks Gaza port
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