Ships in the Red Sea. Illustrative.
Ships in the Red Sea. Illustrative. Photo by Reuters
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Egyptian navy forces seized a ship carrying heavy weapons as it entered Egyptian territorial waters in the Red Sea late on Wednesday, a military spokesman said on Thursday. The origin and destination of the ship were the subject of a number of conflicting reports.

Security sources told Reuters that the ship, with a crew of at least seven, spent a week in international waters before entering Egyptian waters.The vessel was escorted into the port of Safaga, 569 km southeast of Cairo, where the crew members were being questioned and an investigation was under way to determine whether the weapons were legal, the sources said. 

Turkish News Agency Anadolu reported Thursday afternoon that the ship was an Iranian fishing vessel, and that it was carrying tens of thousands of pieces of weaponry.

The ship was found 12-nautical miles north of Ras Muhammad in the Sinai Peninsula travelling west, according to Anadolu, and was carrying ten people with varying citizenships. When the boat was searched, some 62,283 weapons were found on board. These included a large number of Kalashnikovs  and sniper rifles.

Members of the crew who were stopped and taken in for questioning claimed that the ship was on its way to an Egyptian port, and did not divulge more details on where the arms were headed, or whether they were headed to Egypt or not. The Anadolu report did not cite any official Egyptian sources, however.

Media in the Arab world reported that the Egypt's naval forces intercepted a ship flying a Togolese flag that entered Egyptian waters after it had sailed for a few days in international waters in the Red Sea.

A search of the vessel uncovered dozens of cases of ammunition and weapons, according to these reports. The ship was escorted into the port of Safaga, 569 kilometers southeast of Cairo, where seven crew members were being questioned. Arab media also reported that the ship was rented or owned by an African security company, and that it set sail from the port of Eilat.

Egypt's general staff spokesman Ahmed Mohamed Ali said  in a statemen about the ship on his Facebook page that, "Inside they found a number of weapons and quantities of ammunition of various types."

"The boat belongs to a private maritime security company which serves to secure ships passing through highly dangerous areas, especially in light of the spread of piracy in the southern Red Sea area and off the Somali coast," he added. 

"The weapons and ammunition seized in the vessel are linked to the nature of their work and the tasks assigned to them to secure commercial vessels," Ali said in his statement. 

International shipping companies have begun to employ private security firms to ward off the threat of Somali pirates, with contractors often picking up weapons from ships off the coast of Djibouti as they enter the areas at risk. 

That, together with the presence international warships patrolling the Indian Ocean, has seen the number of successful pirate seizures of ships fall sharply to five ships in 2012, from 25 in 2011, and 27 in 2010.