U.S. Urges Libya to Avoid Confrontation With Israel Over Gaza-bound Aid Ship

Israel navy makes contact with Libya-sponsored Gaza aid ship; Al-Amal is carrying 15 pro-Palestinian activists, 12 crew members and 2,000 tons of food and medicine.

The Libyan government should avoid any unnecessary confrontation with Israel over the Gaza-bound aid ship, U.S. State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley said on Tuesday.

"We... have urged all those wishing to deliver goods to do so through established channels so their cargo can be inspected by the government of Israel and transferred by land crossings into Gaza," Crowley told reporters, adding that parties must "act responsibly."

Libyan aid ship at port near Athens

The final destination of the Libyan-sponsored Gaza-bound aid ship remains unclear Wednesday morning, as Egyptian officials report that the boat will dock in Egypt while mission organizers say the ship is still headed towards the Israeli blockaded strip.

The captain of the Libyan-sponsored Gaza-bound aid ship told Israel Navy officials on Tuesday that he planed to sail to the Egyptian port of El-Arish and not attempt to break the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Speaking with Israeli authorities by radio, the captain of the Al-Amal assured them that he is in charge of the vessel and that the activists aboard will obey his orders. One of the activists' leaders, a Libyan national, also said that, despite the group's desire to sail to Gaza, it will accept their captain's decision.

Israel Navy officials continue to track the aid ship, saying they will only know the Al-Amal's true course early Wednesday morning, when it nears the coast.

Just before midnight, the ship's crew said they were stuck because of engine trouble. In a recording played on Israel Radio, a crew member said he did not know how long it would take to repair the main engine and resume their journey.

The Libyan aid ship requested and received permission to dock in Egypt instead, an Egyptian official said on Tuesday.

"Egypt has given permission to the Libyan ship to dock in el-Arish port instead of the port of Gaza," the official said, adding Egypt would allow the ship's medical cargo and passengers to pass into Gaza through the Rafah border.

The Israeli navy earlier Tuesday made radio contact with the Libyan-sponsored ship sailing for Gaza, a military spokeswoman said.

"The navy just began its process of trying to stop the ship," she said. "At this time the process of communicating with them has begun."

Israel, however, has denied it gave the activists an ultimatum to change course and sail to El-Arish by midnight or face a forceful takeover. It warned the Moldovan-flagged, Greek-registered Al-Amal that it was entering a closed military zone.

The ship, which left Greece on Saturday afternoon, was commissioned by the Gadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation, headed by Saif Al-Islam Gadhafi, second son of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

"The ship's captain was asked by the gunboat crew to go to El-Arish port instead, stressing that the vessel will not be allowed to go into Gaza at all," the foundation said in a statement on its website.

"The captain and the head of the foundation's team on board affirmed that the ship's sole destination is Gaza, asserting that it is carrying humanitarian aid and has no other purpose whatsoever, while the gunboat is still present near the ship," the statement added.

Six weeks ago, nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed when navy commandos stormed a Turkish aid ship, prompting international condemnation and two national inquiries.

According to the official, Israel contacted the ship and warned that if they did not head the ultimatum Israel would attack the ship and arrest everyone on board.

Israel Radio reported that the government was also exploring diplomatic channels in an attempt to persuade the Al-Amal to turn back.

The Al-Amal, carrying 15 pro-Palestinian activists and 12 crew members and 2,000 tons of food and medicine is expected to arrive off the coast of Gaza by Wednesday morning.
On Monday the Foreign Ministry advised the defense establishment to wait until the ship approaches or enters the coastal strip's territorial waters before making any attempt to stop it, to avoid the risk of breaking international law.

Aboard the 92-meter vessel is a crew of 12 from Haiti, India and Syria, under the command of a Cuban-born captain. Most of the activists on board are from Libya, except for one Nigerian, one Algerian and one Moroccan.

In Gaza, preparations for the ship's arrival were already underway on Tuesday, with local residents adorning the main harbor with Libyan flags and posters bearing the image of the Libyan leader.

Jamal Al-Khudari head of the Popular Committee Against the Siege said the ship is currently more than 100 kilometers from the Gaza shore and would reach the coastal strip by Wednesday morning.