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Ship Captain Points at Arafat's Regime

Mideast: Chief of seized vessel with arms cache says he got orders from man Israelis accuse of being Palestinian Authority's top smuggler.

January 08, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — The captain of a ship carrying 50 tons of weapons that Israel says were intended for the Palestinian Authority said Monday that he was a longtime member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization obeying orders to smuggle the arms.

Omar Akkawi said he received his orders from a Palestinian official he identified as Adel Awadallah, a man Israel says is in charge of "smuggling operations" and weapons procurement for the Palestinian Authority. "I'm a soldier. I obeyed orders," Akkawi said in a jail interview with two Israeli television stations and Fox News.

The Palestinian Authority has denied any knowledge of the arms shipment and has accused Israel of using the capture of the ship on Thursday to score public relations points.

In a meeting with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, Arafat said he has established a committee to investigate the incident. In a statement, Arafat spokesman Nabil abu Rudaineh said the Palestinian Authority president told Solana on Monday night that any Palestinian involved with the shipment would be punished.

Israeli commandos captured Akkawi's cargo ship and its 13-member crew in the Red Sea. The ship was loaded with Katyusha rockets, mortars, antitank missiles, 2 1/2 tons of C-4 explosives and other weapons worth tens of millions of dollars, according to the Israeli army. The Palestinian Authority is banned from possessing such weapons under peace agreements it signed with Israel.

Akkawi confirmed that the ship was loaded off the coast of Iran and that a member of the radical Shiite Muslim Lebanese group Hezbollah helped load the weapons. Israel has said it regards Iran and Hezbollah's effort to arm the Palestinians as a dangerous development.

Initially, Israeli leaders said the capture of the weapons would require a drastic shift in Israel's policy toward the Palestinian Authority. But by Monday, it seemed that no immediate change was in the offing.

In an appearance before a committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said he did not recommend that Israel declare Arafat an enemy, a term Prime Minister Ariel Sharon applied to him at a news conference Sunday.

But Ben-Eliezer also said that there is now "real quiet" in Palestinian-controlled territories and that Israel will ease some restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if the lull in violence continues.

Israeli officials seemed more concerned Monday with their own performance in the affair, and with international coverage of it, than with what it meant to Israel's future relations with Arafat. Officials denounced the international media for failing to give the story the attention Israel said it deserved.

Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the Israeli army spokesman, complained on Israel Radio that few foreign reporters based in Israel attended a Sunday news conference in the southern port city of Eilat where the army displayed the captured ship and its cargo.

Ministries blamed one another for failing to capitalize on what all agreed should have been a public relations coup. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials accused the army of mishandling the news conference and failing to disclose more information about the ship sooner. The army, in interviews on Israel Radio and in briefings of Israeli military correspondents, hotly defended its performance.

The uproar over the ship's capture overshadowed the latest effort of U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni to secure a cease-fire.

But before ending a four-day visit to the region Monday, Zinni said he felt progress had been made, and he told Israeli and Palestinian security officials to keep meeting until his return Jan. 18. He asked the Palestinians to step up arrests of militants and asked Israel to expedite its lifting of restrictions on the Palestinians.

In Washington on Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration still does not know who hired the ship and who was supposed to take delivery of the weapons.

Akkawi, the ship's captain, told interviewers that he had intended to offload the weapons onto three smaller boats at the Egyptian port of Alexandria after passing through the Suez Canal. The boats, Akkawi said, would then dump the weapons in special waterproof containers off the coast of Gaza.

Akkawi said he has been a Fatah member since 1976, is a former officer in the Palestinian navy and currently works in the Palestinian Ministry of Transportation. He said he understood that the operation was likely to fail but agreed to do it because "it's the Palestinian right to defend ourselves."

Akkawi said he did not know whether senior Palestinian Authority officials were aware of the shipment. He said he dealt only with Awadallah.

But a senior army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity Monday night, said Israel is certain that Arafat knew of the smuggling attempt "from top to bottom."

Since fighting erupted between Israel and the Palestinians in September 2000, the officer said, the Palestinian Authority has been trying to obtain weapons that can reach Israeli cities and cause heavy casualties.

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