The Cypriot Navy has stopped an Iranian ship, believed to be carrying weapons for Hamas, on its way to Syria, Israeli security officials told The Jerusalem Post last Thursday night.
Admiral Chabanenko, a Russian anti-submarine destroyer photo Russian Navy
According to unofficial intelligence reports, the Iran Shahed set out from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas Dec. 29, the second day of the Gaza conflict, changing its identity several times until hoisting a Cypriot flag.
The vessel was stopped by the US Sixth Fleet in the Gulf of Aden on its way to Egypt, where it was believed to have planned to unload its cargo, which was then to be smuggled into the Gaza Strip.
The US Navy searched the ship prior to its entry into the Suez Canal, with permission of the captain but found only "small munitions," so the vessel was allowed to continue its voyage after the search, and was seemingly bound for Syria. The US said it lacked the authority to seize the cargo.
According to unconfirmed reports, the Israelis tried to seize the boat in the Red Sea (like they did in 2002 with the Karin A, a similar Iranian weapons ship then heading for Gaza). But the Americans decided not to give the Israeli Navy a chance to seize the vessel and tow it to Eilat for fear of a Tehran ultimatum to Jerusalem, followed by Iranian attacks on Israeli and US naval craft patrolling the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea. The ship had initially tried docking in Egypt but was denied access by the Egyptian Navy.
After the US Navy allowed it to continue its voyage through Suez, the Iranian vessel's captain called Tehran for instructions and was told to proceed to a Syrian port and there unload its arms consignment for Hamas, including a fresh supply of rockets.
But entering the Mediterranean on Jan. 26, the Iranian ship found three waiting armadas – Israeli missile boats, vessels of the US Sixth Fleet and the Chabanenko, a Russian anti-submarine destroyer, coming from Tartus Port in Syria. They all stayed close to the Iranian vessel – each with its own agenda: The Israeli missile boats blocked its access to the shores of Gaza, while the Russian destroyer kept watch for developments.
On Thursday afternoon, though, as the ship passed 100 km. off the coast of the Cyprus port of Limassol, it was stopped by the Cypriot Navy, which was legally allowed to intercept it since it was flying a Cypriot flag. Cyprus's decision to intercept the ship, officials said, was made after the United States and several European countries applied pressure on the government in Nicosia.
The officials said that the ship was believed to be carrying a number of shipping containers packed with weaponry.
"This is an example of how the sanctions on Iran are not effective," unidentified Israeli defense officials warned on Thursday. "Iran is making great efforts to get new weaponry to Hamas in Gaza."
"There are two main smuggling routes, some of the weaponry comes by ground from Somalia, Sudan and then into Egypt and through a tunnel into Gaza, while some comes by boat. The boats sometimes unload the shipments in the Sinai's El Arish port, where it is smuggled into Gaza by land. Other times, the shipments are dropped overboard in waterproof containers and are picked up by Gazan fishermen or divers.