JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli naval forces raided a ship in the Red Sea early Wednesday and seized dozens of advanced rockets from Iran destined for Palestinian militants in Gaza, the military said.
The ship, the KLOS C, was carrying Syrian-made M-302 rockets and was intercepted more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) south of Israel off the coasts of Sudan and Eritrea, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told reporters.
He said the M-302 rockets have a range of up to 100 miles (160 kilometers) and would have significantly improved the capabilities of Gaza militants, putting nearly all of Israel in their range. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah used M-302s in a 2006 war with Israel, the military says.
There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials about the Israeli claims.
The operation, codenamed “Full Disclosure,” followed months of intelligence gathering. Lerner said the shipment originated in Syria. From there the weapons were flown to Iran and departed from the Bandar Abbas port. Lerner said the Iranians tried to “obscure their tracks” by shipping first via Iraq and then out to sea. The shipment was destined for Sudan from where it would be moved overland through Egypt to Gaza. Israel says militants have used similar routes in the past.
Lerner said the 17-man crew of the ship, flying under a Panama flag, were not suspects and were probably unaware of the cargo. The vessel was being brought to Israel.
Video released by the military showed Israeli soldiers on the ship inspecting the rockets, which were kept in large boxes. The video also showed beige bags containing cement with the words “Made in Iran,” in English, written on them.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the weapons were “strategically important.”
“Iran trains, funds and arms terror groups in the region and around the world and its failed attempts to transfer the arms that were discovered this morning is more proof of that,” he said.
Gaza is ruled by Hamas, an Islamic militant group that already possesses thousands of rockets. A number of smaller groups, including the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaida-inspired groups also possess rockets. The military did not specify which group the shipment was believed to be destined for.
Israel accuses Iran of supplying rockets and other arms to its foes – militants in Gaza and Lebanon’s Hezbollah – and it has moved to intercept weapons shipments in the past.
Three years ago, Israel seized the cargo ship Victoria loaded with weapons sent by Iran to Gaza militants, including land-to-sea missiles.
In November 2009, Israel took over the Iranian Francop vessel off the coast of Cyprus and captured hundreds of tons of rockets, missiles, mortars, grenades and anti-tank weapons on board that it said were headed to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Israel is also suspected of carrying out airstrikes in Sudan on arms shipments believed to be bound for Gaza. Israel has never confirmed carrying out the strikes.
In January 2002, Israeli forces stormed the Karine A freighter on the Red Sea, and confiscated what the military said was 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition headed for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
In May 2001 off its coast, Israel captured the vessel Santorini, packed with explosives that Israel said were being sent from Hezbollah to Palestinian militant groups.