By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:13 AM
Israel's navy intercepted a container ship loaded with smuggled arms late Tuesday night, the latest development in the country's effort to curb the flow of weapons to militant groups in the area, defense officials said.
The vessel was operating under the flag of Antigua and was rigged to appear as if it were carrying civilian goods, said Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces.
A navy special forces unit boarded the ship about 100 miles off the Israeli coast and found "dozens of containers" of arms, she said.
"We had a suspicion" about the ship, which had passed through the Suez Canal and was heading north, Leibovich said.
The ship was directed to the Israeli port of Ashdod for further investigation. Leibovich said the IDF expected to release more details on the ship, the cargo and the crew later Wednesday.
IDF officials said they suspect the arms shipment originated in Iran and was destined for Hezbollah militias.
The incident appears similar in scope to Israel's seizure in 2002 of the cargo ship Karin-A, which was carrying a load of weapons bound for Gaza-based militants.
Local media outlets reported in Israel that the seized arms included Katyusha rockets, grenades and a variety of guns and ammunitions.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah Islamist group maintains a heavily armed presence along Lebanon's southern border with Israel, and Israeli and other officials say it has an active smuggling program. The Hamas group in Gaza also has a large supply of smuggled arms.
The ship interception comes at a sensitive time for Israel, as it tries to counter a United Nation's Human Rights Council report alleging that it committed war crimes in a recent three-week war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, hopes for a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have largely faded, despite a push from the Obama administration.
Israel contends that it took military action in Gaza only after years in which the militant group fired rockets at civilian targets in Israel. The country regards Hamas and Hezbollah as imminent threats -- a point highlighted when Israeli intelligence officials told the country's parliament this week that Hamas had recently test-fired an Iranian-supplied rocket with the power to reach Tel Aviv.