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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mullen: U.S. could not legally hold Iran ship

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has assigned an amphibious transport dock ship, the USS San Antonio, to track Iranian weapons shipments to the Gaza Strip.   

Officials said the San Antonio, flagship of Combined Task Force 151, intercepted and searched an Iranian-owned cargo ship in mid-January found to contain artillery, missiles and rockets. The ship was released and expected to arrive in Syria on Jan. 28.

Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the weapons ship intercepted in the Red Sea was determined to have been destined for Syria, a leading supplier of Hamas and Hizbullah. Mullen said the United States could not legally hold the Cypriot-flagged ship, owned by Iran.

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"The United States did as much as we could do legally," Mullen told a briefing on Jan. 27.

"There are authorities, limitations in complying with this particular UN resolution, and we basically went right up to the edge of that and we couldn't do anything else. And we think those weapons are headed to Syria, which is obviously not a great outcome ...shipping weapons to Syria that we think, quite frankly, are going to end up in Gaza."

CTF 151 is a multinational force that seeks to deter pirates from Somalia. The San Antonio employs Marine teams in rigid-hull inflatable boats to board suspicious ships.

"San Antonio has been trained to stop and search ships and was mostly used for counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Red Sea," an official said. "Its authority is very wide."

San Antonio contains a nine-member sniper team that could land from helicopters. The U.S. Navy said scout snipers use the Mk-11, a 7.62 sniper rifle, as well as a 50-caliber M107 special application scoped rifle.

"The scout snipers' role while attached to CTF-151 is to supply either aerial support from a scout sniper position inside the helicopter or, if need be, we can provide support from the ship to provide overwatch for the visit, board, search and seizure [VBSS] team as they go ahead and take out a vessel," Gunnery Sgt. Jeffery Benkie said.

On Jan. 26, about a week after the Iranian ship was released, the U.S. Navy provided details of San Antonio's mission. The navy said the San Antonio could identify the onboard cargo of a suspicious ship from standoff range. Marine snipers, assigned to cover interception teams, were said to have the ability to hit a target from a kilometer away.

"We have the ability to stand off of a target, visually see what is on the target and report that information to the VBSS teams so they understand — before they're boarding — the number of personnel, if there are any weapons on board, if there are any type of foulings on the deck, if their hook point is obtainable, and, basically, give them a warm and fuzzy feeling that they're not out alone out here, that they have snipers watching over them 100 percent of the time," Benkie said.

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