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Israeli Navy Intercepts Arms Ship Off Coast

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Israel says it intercepted a container ship carrying weapons in the Mediterranean and indicated they included missiles destined for Lebanon's Hizballah guerrilla group.

Unconfirmed Israeli media reports said the weaponry was supplied by Iran.

An official statement quoted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as saying the munitions, on what the military described as an Antiguan-flagged ship boarded 160 kilometers from the Israeli coast, were earmarked for "the terrorist arena in the north," an apparent reference to Hizballah.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a separate statement, said the weapons found on the vessel could have "hit Israeli cities," indicating they included missiles.

Hizballah fired more than 4,000 missiles into Israel during a 2006 war.

The vessel, with containers stacked on its deck, was taken to Ashdod port, south of Tel Aviv. Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent identified the vessel as the "Francop."

"During the night, the navy, performing routine checks, spotted a cargo vessel flying an Antiguan flag 100 miles from the Israeli coast," the spokeswoman said.

"They suspected it was carrying weapons, and after an initial inspection, munitions were found."


Israel's Channel 10 television said Israel had advance information about the vessel. Military sources said naval commandos stormed the ship in international waters and the Defense Ministry said the vessel was boarded near Cyprus.

Israeli officials have said Iranian-backed Hizballah has been rearming since the 2006 conflict.

"[The interception] was another success in the unceasing battle against weapons smuggling aimed at strengthening terrorist elements threatening Israel's security," Barak was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his spokesman.

The largest weapons-smuggling ship intercepted by the Israeli Navy was the "Karin A," a vessel boarded in 2002 that carried tons of weapons that Israel said Iran had sent to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.