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Monday, January 26, 2009

U.S. Navy ordered to release Iran weapons ship

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy released an Iranian ship that contained weapons earlier believed destined for the Gaza Strip.   

Officials said the U.S. Navy intercepted an Iranian-owned ship on Jan. 19 in the Red Sea near the Suez Canal. They said the ship, suspected of transporting cargo for the Hamas regime, was searched and found to have contained artillery shells and other weapons.

"We received orders to let the ship go," an official said. "The assessment was that the cargo was not for Hamas."

Officials said the Iranian-owned ship contained the flag of the Republic of Cyprus and was tracked by the U.S. Navy from the Gulf to the Red Sea, Middle East Newsline reported. They said the navy had received information that the ship contained weapons for Hamas.

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On Jan. 19, the U.S. Navy stopped the Iranian ship and conducted a two-day search in Egyptian territorial waters. Officials said the cargo contained artillery shells and other ammunition, but the captain did not identify the end-user. They said the ship was destined for the Egyptian port of Damietta.

The interception of the Iranian ship was conducted by the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. The fleet refused to discuss the operation.

Officials would not discuss the source of the information on the Iranian ship. But they said Israel has briefed the U.S. military and Defense Department on Iranian weapons shipments to Hamas through Egyptian ports.

Egypt has denied that it was a conduit for the flow of weapons to Hamas. The regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has rejected a European Union offer to station monitors at both Port Said as well as the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip.

Officials said the U.S. Navy was ordered to allow the Iranian-owned ship to continue to Egypt. They said Egypt has been asked to conduct a thorough search once the ship docks in Port Said.

On Jan. 23, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the deployment of a naval frigate off the coast of the Gaza Strip. Sarkozy said the deployment would be "in full cooperation with Egypt and Israel."

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