Israel Navy Chief Brig. Gen. Rani Ben-Yehuda said Wednesday that an arms ship seized near Cyprus earlier in the day had been carrying hundreds of tons of weapons.
Israeli commandos seized the ship before dawn on Wednesday and defense officials said it had been carrying missiles and rockets bound for Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas, believed to have come from Iran.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a bitter war in the summer of 2006 that ended with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire, but occasional flare-ups occur.
Wednesday's pre-dawn seizure in the waters near Cyprus was bigger than a similar haul in 2002, when Israeli military confiscated Karine A, a vessel with 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition headed for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
In Tehran, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem dismissed Israeli allegations the ship carried arms.
"Unfortunately, some pirates sometimes take action in the name of inspection and prevent the sailing of commercial ships," he was quoted as saying by the state IRNA news agency during a visit Wednesday. "This ship was carrying goods from Syria heading to Iran and was not carrying weapons making materials."
It was unclear why Moallem said the ship was headed in the opposite direction of that claimed by Israel. Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment in Damascus.
Iran and Syria are close allies and Hezbollah's principle backers. Israel accuses Syria and Iran of supplying Hezbollah with weapons using air, sea and land routes - including through the port of Latakia.
At a press conference Wednesday, Ben-Yehuda said that the ship had been carrying 40 containers filled with 300 tons of weapons each, all meant for Hezbollah in order to pose a threat to Israel.
The navy commander described the operation, saying that the Antigua-flagged ship was first detected during a routine patrol. In coordination with NATO ships, the ship's crew was questioned and a request for a closer inspection was presented to them. Defense officials encountered no resistance in boarding the ship. An inspection of the ship's documents revealed that the ship was carrying several containers of weapons originating from Iran and headed for Syria.
A random check of the containers revealed weapons, the navy chief explained, especially rockets hidden inside containers belonging to the Iranian commercial fleet.
Ben-Yehuda refused to divulge whether Israel had any prior intelligence regarding the ship's cargo, saying that "we have ongoing intelligence indicating that Iran is continuously supporting Hezbollah and other organizations with massive quantities of weapons." He said that no anti-aircraft or anti-tank missiles have been found aboard the ship.
After the initial search on board the ship, the navy towed the freighter to Israel, where it conducted a thorough inspection of the cargo, the IDF said.
Intelligence agencies had surveilled the vessel for a number of days leading up to the raid. The decision to seize the ship was made following a recommendation by top IDF brass and was approved by the country's most senior echelon.
In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were kept abreast of preparations for the raid over the course of a few days.
"There were Katyusha (rockets), whose purpose is to hit civilians," Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio.
He did not give any quantities, voicing doubt its crew knew munitions were on aboard.
Asked if the weaponry had been earmarked for Hezbollah, Vilnai said: "Yes. It strengthens (the group) and improves its long-range firing capability into Israel."
Netanyahu released a statement Wednesday saying that the weapons found on board the ship were intended to harm Israel's cities and town. The premier hailed the IDF and the Navy for the operation.
Barak praised the capture of the ship. Barak congratulated IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Navy Commander Admiral Eliezer Marom for the ship's seizure.
"This is another success in the endless struggle against attempts to smuggle weapons and military equipment whose goal is to strengthen terrorist elements who threaten the security of Israel," the defense minister said. "I congratulate the IDF troops for the successful operation."
Following the raid, ministers in the diplomatic-security cabinet convened for a special session Wednesday morning, where they were given an intelligence and operational briefing on the details of the seizure.
Before the meeting, the ministers who were summoned were told that the discussion would focus on the latest developments related to the Palestinian Authority. The meeting though was devoted exclusively to the ship's capture.
From all indications, the operation was not brought for cabinet approval prior to its execution. Rather, it is likely that a small forum of a select number of ministers gave the go-ahead.
Foreign Ministry officials on Wednesday launched consultations to determine Israel's public relations stance in explaining the operation and its ramifications to diplomats and the foreign press.
Since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, last winter's three-week military offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, the Navy and the Israel Air Force have conducted routine and extensive patrols and reconnaissance in the Mediterranean and Red Sea.
The military seeks to intercept ships bearing arms intended for Hamas and Hezbollah. As part of these efforts, the Navy has deployed warships through the Suez Canal.
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