JERUSALEM - Israeli naval commandos have boarded a ship carrying Iranian-supplied rockets destined for Lebanon's Hezbollah group and taken the vessel to an Israeli port, the government said on Wednesday.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Army Radio that Katyusha rockets were found on the Antigua-flagged Francop, which the military said was intercepted overnight in the Mediterranean Sea, 100 miles from Israel. It was brought to Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv.
A Cyprus-based shipping source told Reuters the ship had been due to call in Lebanon.
Stopping the Iranian weapons ship was an important achievement for the Israel Defense Forces and the state of Israel, President Shimon Peres said in a statement.
The 8,622 deadweight ton ship was due to have arrived on November 1 at the Egyptian port of Damietta and was last seen on October 31 in the Mediterranean sea between Lebanon and Cyprus, according to AISLive ship tracking data on Reuters.
The vessel is owned by German shipping company Reederei Gerd Bartels, based near the port of Hamburg. Asked to comment, Mirko Bartels of the private shipping firm told Reuters: We have nothing to say.
An official with Cyprus-based United Feeder Services told Reuters it had acted as the time charterer and carrier for the Francop, tasked with loading and discharging the vessel.
The vessel sailed from Damietta, and was bound for Limassol, Cyprus and then Lebanon, Turkey and back to Damietta, the official, who declined to be named, said.
We are not allowed to open up containers to see what is inside, he said. We do not have much information. We just know that the vessel was seized and was forced to go to Ashdod to check the cargo.
Military sources said naval commandos seized the 137-meter (450-ft)-long vessel in international waters.
Asked if the weaponry on the ship had been earmarked for Hezbollah, Vilnai said: Yes. It strengthens (the group) and improves its long-range firing capability into Israel.
He did not give any quantities, saying the vessel was still being unloaded in Israel and voicing doubt as to whether its crew knew munitions were on aboard. Army Radio said anti-tank missiles were also found.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah launched more than 4,000 rockets into Israel during a 2006 war and Israeli officials have said the group has rearmed since the 34-day conflict.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that weapons discovered on the vessel could have been used to attack Israeli cities.
But in public comments on the incident, Israeli leaders gave no hint they were contemplating military action against Hezbollah in response to the alleged weapons smuggling attempt. The Israeli-Lebanese frontier has been largely quiet since 2006.
The largest weapons-smuggling ship intercepted by the Israeli navy was the Karine-A, a freighter boarded in 2002 while carrying tons of weapons that Israel said Iran had sent to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Jonathan Saul in London and Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Editing by Mark Trevelyan)