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Agence France-Presse

Israel Warning as Libya Aid Boat Eyes Gaza Landing


JERUSALEM - Israel on Sunday vowed to prevent a Libyan aid ship from running the Gaza blockade after it appeared to be heading for the besieged enclave despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts to divert it to Egypt.

"Israel will not let the boat reach Gaza," minister without portfolio Yossi Peled told Israel's public radio a day after the 92-metre (302-foot) freighter Amalthea set sail from the Greek port of Lavrio, south of Athens.

Allowing vessels to reach the Hamas-run Gaza Strip without being checked would have "very serious consequences" for Israel's security, he said.

There was confusion over the ship's destination on Sunday -- with organisers saying it was staying the course for Gaza, despite diplomatic reassurances from Greece that it was headed for the Egyptian port of El-Arish.

"We are heading for Gaza. We will not change direction," Mashallah Zwei, a representative of the Kadhafi Foundation, a Libyan charity, told AFP by satellite phone from on board the Amalthea.

He insisted the foundation was not seeking "a confrontation or a provocation," when asked about the risks of a repeat of an Israeli naval raid on an aid flotilla on May 31 that killed nine Turks.

Zwei said the ship was currently "close to Crete" and would likely reach Gaza in about two days.

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the attempt to reach Gaza, which has been subjected to an Israeli naval blockade for the past four years, was an "unnecessary provocation."

"The goods can be transferred to the Gaza Strip through Ashdod port after being checked," a statement from his office said late on Saturday.

"However, we will not allow the entry of arms, weapons or anything which will support fighting into Gaza. We recommend that the organisers either let the ship be escorted by navy vessels to Ashdod port (in southern Israel) or that is sails directly to the port of El-Arish" in Egypt.

Barak's office had earlier said the defence minister spoke with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and asked "if Egypt would agree to accept the boat at the port of El-Arish."

It was not immediately clear if Egypt had acceded to Barak's request but the ship's agent and the Greek foreign ministry had on Saturday assured Israel that the Moldova-flagged vessel, chartered by a charity linked to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, was heading for El-Arish.

The Kadhafi Foundation, headed by Seif al-Islam Kadhafi, the son of the Libyan leader, insisted however that the ship, loaded with 2,000 tonnes of foodstuff and medications and a crew comprising six Libyans, a Moroccan, a Nigerian and an Algerian, had not changed its course.

"The ship is heading toward Gaza as planned," executive director Youssef Sawan told AFP by telephone from Tripoli, saying the mission was "purely humane."

His comments were backed up by Arab Israeli parliamentarian Ahmed Tibi. "The ship is heading into Gaza as originally planned," said the MP who is in touch with the charity.

Israel's top diplomat Avigdor Lieberman has been talking with his counterparts in Greece and Moldova in a bid to encourage the Amalthea to call off its mission, a statement from his office said.

"The foreign ministry believes that due to these talks, the ship will not reach Gaza," it said.

Last month's disastrous Israeli naval assault provoked a major diplomatic crisis with Ankara and unleashed a torrent of international criticism.

Global pressure over the incident has since forced Israel to significantly change its policy on Gaza, and now it only prevents the import of arms and goods that could be used to build weapons or fortifications.

Israel had even approached UN chief Ban Ki-moon with a request asking the international community "to exert its influence on the government of Libya" to prevent the ship from going to Gaza, media reports said.

Jordanian activists and trade unionists, meanwhile, said they plan to head to Gaza overland on Tuesday through the Egyptian border carrying aid relief and medical supplies.

Last month, Egypt banned a group of Jordanian trade unionists from Gaza through its Rafah crossing, saying they had failed to give prior notice of their arrival.

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