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Iran and Syria deny arms claims

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The arms were intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Israelis say

Iran and Syria have denied Israeli claims that a ship seized in the Mediterranean was carrying Iranian weapons for Hezbollah militants.

The Israeli military said the arms cache was one of the largest it had ever found.

It said the arms came from Iran and were bound for Syria and ultimately for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Israel has recently stepped up efforts to combat the smuggling of arms to both Hezbollah and Hamas militants.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki held a joint news conference with his visiting Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem and dismissed the Israeli allegations.

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Mr Muallem said: "Unfortunately, some official pirates in the seas, sometimes in the name of the navy, sometimes in the name of inspection, obstruct trade movement between Syria and Iran.

"This ship does not carry Iranian weapons to Syria and does not contain military material to manufacture weapons in Syria. This ship carries imported goods from Syria to Iran."

Iran and Syria are widely held to be the main sponsors of Hezbollah. The Shia group has not yet commented on the seizure.

The Antiguan-flagged vessel, Francop, was boarded near Cyprus, the military said, and has been towed to the port of Ashdod.

Containers piled three deep on its deck were opened and inside were rockets, hand grenades, mortars and at least 3,000 missiles, the Israeli military said.

'Indisputable proof'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the arms were intended to strike Israeli cities.

"Whoever still needed indisputable proof that Iran continues to send weapons to terror organisations got it today in a clear and unequivocal manner," he said.

The Israeli military said cargo certificates showed the ship had sailed from Iran and was bound for Syria, from where the weapons would be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, the military did not show the documents.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006 during which about 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon and about 160 were killed in Israel.

The BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says that although Israel's northern border has been largely quiet since 2006, Israel and Hezbollah operate from the shared assumption that sooner or later the war will be reignited.



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