(photo credit: AP)
Hundreds of tons of weaponry, ten times the size of the Karine A shipment of 2002, were seized in an overnight raid Tuesday by the Israeli navy, some 100 nautical miles west of Israel, officials said.
Defense officials said the 140-meter long Francop, intercepted near Cyprus, was carrying arms sent by Iran and destined for Syria and possibly also Hizbullah.
The weapons seized on the ship, which was sailing under an Antiguan flag, included some 3,000 rockets of various types, as well as bullets and ammunition.
The transfer of such large amounts of weapons out of Iran could "create a balance of power" between Israel and terrorist organizations, assessed Brigadier General Rani Ben-Yehuda, deputy commander of the Israeli navy, at a press conference following the seizures.
After several days of the Israeli military monitoring the ship, IDF Navy Seals boarded it in the middle of the night. Suspicions were raised after the Seals uncovered certificates within containers that documented Iran as the point of origin for some containers, with Syria as the intended destination.
Upon receiving permission from relevant authorities, including the political establishment, the seals commandeered the ship and brought it to Israel. When the vessel was already en route to Israeli shores, Israel apprised the government of Antigua and the company that owns the ship of the situation, said the officials.
After leaving the Bandar-Abbas port in Iran, the cargo was shipped through the Suez Canal, unloaded at the Mediterranean port of Damietta in Egypt and then loaded onto the ship that was captured by the navy. The intended destination was the port of Latakia in Syria, with the contents of the shipment to be sent to Hizbullah, they said.
The ship's crew was unaware of the weapons on board, as the armaments were disguised as humanitarian aid and hidden behind sacks of polyethylene.
"This is the third time this year that Iran is disregarding international law and UN Security Council resolutions which forbid it to transfer weaponry," Ben-Yehuda said. He went on to say that the Navy regularly conducts operations hundreds of miles from Israel's shores to inspect ships suspected of transporting illegal weapons shipments from Iran to terror proxies like Hizbullah and Hamas.
Israel Radio reported that advanced anti-aircraft platforms never before found in the region were also on board.
The Francop is currently docked in the Ashdod port, and being unloaded for further inspection.
Ben-Yehuda said that there was regular intelligence indicating that Iran was continuing to support terror groups with large amounts of weapons aimed at being used against Israel. Furthermore, it was likely that additional shipments would be sent out from Iran, he said.
In recent years, Revolutionary Guard-founded Hizbullah's military capability has been greatly enhanced by shipments from its more powerful allies. The terrorist organization, whose operatives are said to number 15,000, has in recent years been supplied with short-range Grad rockets, heavy artillery Zelzal rockets, surface-to-surface weaponry, deadly anti-warship missiles such as the Chinese-made C-802 - which hit INS corvette Hanit during the Second Lebanon War - and possibly also advanced surface-air missiles.
The containers aboard the ship were owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines Group, or IRISL, the military said, adding that each container contained sacks, filled with 25 kilos of silicon, made by the Natural Petrol Company in Iran.
Upon opening the containers used for smuggling the weapons, only the sacks were visible, but behind the sacks lay weapons.
The weapons included 107-millimeter rockets, 60-millimeter mortars, 7.62-rifle Kalashnikov-ammunition, F-1 grenades and 122-millimeter Katyusha rockets. On the side of some of the cases inside the containers the words "parts of bulldozers" was written.
Ben-Yehuda called the shipment "very advanced weaponry," adding that although the Iranian containers were loaded at port of Damietta in Egypt, the Egyptians were totally unaware of the ship's contents.
A month ago, Der Spiegel reported that the US Navy had boarded a German cargo ship near the Suez Canal that was carrying ammunition from Iran to Syria or Hizbullah.
In the past year, the Navy intercepted several vessels suspected of illicitly carrying munitions intended for Israel's enemies.