by David Bedein
JERUSALEM - Israeli naval forces, led by Israel's elite Naval Commando Unit, stormed the Francop cargo ship before dawn on Wednesday and, after searching its containers, found large quantities of weapons and ammunition on board.
This cargo, earmarked for Hezbollah, originated in Iran. The seized weaponry was hidden inside containers, which supposedly were filled with goods.
A senior Israeli government official said, "Our work now is to show the world what Israel has to deal with. The photographs of arms and ammunition will prove that Israel is defending itself against fierce terrorism, and you don't fight terror with silk gloves. What country would allow terrorist groups to arm themselves in a way that endangers the lives of the citizens in its heartland?"
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to frame the issue somewhat differently and said, "Anyone who still needed proof that Iran continues to send arms to terrorist organizations received it today, clearly and unequivocally. Iran is sending these arms to terrorist groups in order to strike at Israeli cities and kill civilians. The time has come for the international community to apply real pressure to Iran to stop this criminal activity and give support to Israel when it defends itself against terrorists and their patrons."
Meanwhile, a senior Israeli military source predicted Iran would attempt to find other ways to supply Hezbollah with weapons. He said Iran had settled on a maritime strategy after having confronted difficulty when smuggling over land. The source stressed the seizure of the arms ship was proof that Iran was continuing to invest great energy in smuggling munitions despite the restrictions placed on it. He said it was quite possible Iran had in the past made use of civilian commercial vessels as a cover to supply weapons to various destinations.
Israeli Navy Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Rani Ben Yehuda said yesterday the amount of munitions apprehended on the ship would have allowed Hezbollah to fight Israel for about a month.
Detailing The Capture
Former Israeli Navy Commander Maj. Gen. Yedidia Yaari still remembers how, seven years ago, he planned and commanded the operation to capture the arms vessel Karine A, which was bound for the Palestinians, at sea.
This time, however, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Marom sat in the war room in the north, commanding from afar the capture of the Francop, which carried hundreds of tons of arms for Hezbollah - 10 times the quantity of arms aboard the Karine A.
The waves were high and the winds reached speeds of 50 knots. But the intelligence information in Operation Four Species was accurate. Using aircraft and Navy missile boats, they tracked the German vessel continuously. The Navy commander gave the order to begin the operation, despite the weather conditions, and had to relax the safety instructions for the ships. Once the missile boats spotted the vessel and contacted it, the information was passed to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Mr. Barak then issued the order to board the ship.
The countries involved - Antigua, under whose flag the vessel sailed, and Cyprus, the country of its operating firm - were informed. Several hours later, the picture became clear: A ship of the Iranian national merchant fleet had left the port of Bandar Abbas carrying hundreds of containers, in which hundreds of tons of arms were concealed.
The ship's Polish and Ukrainian crew steered the vessel through the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal to the Egyptian city of Domiat.
The containers were unloaded from the Iranian vessel in Domiat and loaded onto the German vessel, Francop, which set out for Cyprus on Tuesday.
One hundred miles out, two Saar 5 missile boats surrounded the German vessel and contacted the Polish captain. The Israeli Navy asked him to inspect the vessel's cargo. The captain agreed to do so at around midnight, and allowed the naval commandos and soldiers of the Combat Engineering Corps's Yahalom unit to search the ship. The troops from the Yahalom unit, covered by naval commando troops, opened the containers and discovered the boxes of arms behind containers of pencils, toilets and polyurethane, a material used in the plastics industry.
The captain and crew were informed of the findings, and, after brief coordination with the Cyprus-based firm and Antigua, were brought to the Ashdod Port, where port workers began to unload the cargo.
A high-ranking security official said last night, "The Iranians hid the fact that the containers concealed arms, thus endangering the ship's crew and all the ports at which the vessel had stopped. Containers carrying explosives are treated completely differently from those carrying civilian material."
As one of the crew members watched the port workers unloading the cargo, he remarked, "We look at the containers, see all the ammunition, and don't believe it."
Gift From Heaven
Officials in Jerusalem had not dared even to dream of better timing for the capture of the vessel carrying so much arms and ammunition bound for Hezbollah. For all practical purposes, in light of the discussion of the Goldstone report that began in the United Nations yesterday and the campaign against Iran, the capture of the ship was, for Israel, like a gift from heaven.
In light of the capture of this ship, Israeli government officials expressed hope that "now the international community will understand whom we're dealing with," as a high-ranking minister said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials have been preparing for a major public relations battle in the UN's institutions and Security Council.
High-ranking ministry officials said they intended to bring the subject to the attention of the UN's member countries by means of both photographs and written messages. Jerusalem officials claim the fact that the weapons captured on the ship originated from Iran proves what Israel has been saying for a very long time: Iran has been consistently violating the UN Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 1747, which forbids Iran from exporting arms and is a blatant violation of Resolution 1701, which had led to the end of the Second Lebanon War and determined that southern Lebanon, between the Blue Line and the Litani River, would be demilitarized and that Hezbollah would disarm.
"None of the papers that we signed, including the Security Council resolutions, are being upheld. They are not worth the paper that they were written on. We have been saying loudly that Hezbollah and Hamas were being armed by Iran, and now we have clear proof that this is the situation that we're dealing with," a high-ranking diplomatic official said. "Iran continues to send arms to Hamas and Hezbollah, ignoring the UN and the international community."
The Israeli PR campaign made an effort to list the long line of UN Security Council resolutions Iran has been violating by such activities as the one thwarted yesterday.
The important aspect of this success, and this is no small thing, is a certain element of deterrence and encumbrance. The Francop is the visible tip of the iceberg. The smuggling routes are known. It is clear the intelligence was good enough to follow the cargo as it made its way on the Iranian ship, that led it from Bandar Abbas to Egypt, and then to the Francop and then to the point where it was detained. It is far more convenient to stop the vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, where a NATO policing force, which Israel is a part of, patrols the seas, and far from Egypt's coast, near which any operation is extremely sensitive.
Name of vessel: Francop
Length: 137 meters
Width: 22 meters
Capacity: 8,622 tons
Year of manufacture: 2003
Ownership: United Feeder, which has a fleet of 41 ships and concentrates on shipping goods in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea.
1. Oct. 26: Dozens of containers filled with arms and ammunition made their way from Iran to Egypt on a ship belonging to Iran's national merchant fleet.
2. In the Egyptian port of Domiat, the containers were unloaded in order to trick anyone who might be trying to track the shipment.
3. The vessel Francop, on which the camouflaged arms were loaded, made its way to Cyprus, from which it was to proceed to its final destination: Syria.
Distance from Israeli coast: 130 miles
View the original article in the Philadelphia Bulletin