Libyan Ship Captain Says Boat Heading for Egypt

The Libyan ship thought bound for Gaza won't be likely to end its journey in an international incident, based on a radio conversation that took place last night between the ship's captain and Israel Navy officers.

The captain said he intends to anchor in the Egyptian port of El-Arish, and won't try and break into Gaza's waters.

Egyptian media similarly reported last night that the ship had sought, and received, permission from the Egyptian authorities to dock at El-Arish.

A representative of the Gadhafi Foundation, which organized the ship, said yesterday that the navy had given the captain an ultimatum: Either change course and head for Egypt by midnight, or be forcibly halted.

Meanwhile, the navy is continuing to monitor the ship, and said it should know for certain whether it is indeed headed for El-Arish at about 4 A.M today.

At 7 P.M. last night, when the conversation with the captain took place, the ship was about 90 miles away from the Gazan coast. It is carrying some 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid and nine passengers - six of them Libyan, and the rest from other North African countries - in addition to the 12 crew members. Half the crew, including the captain, are Cuban.

The ship's official destination had always been given as El-Arish, but over the last two days the Libyan activists had issued several statements insisting they were really heading for Gaza.

A reporter for Al-Jazeera television who is aboard the ship had also reported that it was Gaza-bound.

Captain took control

But last night, the captain told the navy that he is taking control of the ship and intends to sail it to El-Arish. The Libyan official in charge of the ship said he would accept the captain's decision.

The naval personnel who contacted the ship told the captain that Gaza was under a blockade, but he was welcome to sail to either the Israeli port of Ashdod or the Egyptian port of El-Arish and unload the cargo there, whence it would be transferred to Gaza after undergoing inspection. This message was coordinated in advance with the Egyptian authorities.

The ship set sail from a Greek port near Piraeus on Saturday, and it has traversed a wide arc since then - a fact that made it hard for the navy to predict where it was ultimately headed.

As a result, the navy also made preparations to board the ship by force if necessary.

Both naval patrol boats and naval commandos were standing by for such an order last night.

Jack Khoury contributed to this report