July 14, 2010

Libyan aid ship nears Gaza, but final port in doubt


(Reuters) - A Libyan ship carrying aid for Palestinians in Gaza has asked to dock in Egypt, an Egyptian official said on Tuesday, but mission organizers said the ship was still headed for the Israeli-blockaded territory.

Israel, which had vowed to turn away or seize the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea, had no word on whether it had changed course. But an Israeli official pointed to possible disputes between the chartered crew and passengers over the destination.

"It's far from clear that there is agreement about where the ship is headed," said the official, who had been briefed on the navy's radio exchanges with the Amalthea since contact was made with it some 100 miles from the Gaza Strip's shores.

The Egyptian official said the ship -- renamed "Hope" by activists -- sought and received permission to sail to El Arish port, where authorities would unload its declared cargo of 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine and transfer it by land to Gaza.

But he added: "There is no coordination at the moment with the ship and we do not know where its final destination is."

Israeli state television broadcast a recording of what it said was the captain, after being asked by the navy to declare his final port of call, answering: "El Arish, El Arish. Over."

In Tripoli, the Libyan organizers said the Amalthea would not obey an Israeli order to leave the area on Tuesday night.

"The ship is still heading to Gaza and there has been no decision to change course," Youssef Sawani, Executive Director of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which organized the aid ship, told Reuters by telephone.

Israel's handling of attempts by pro-Palestinian activists to break the Gaza blockade -- and the blockade itself -- have been under intense international scrutiny since naval commandos killed nine Turks in the botched May 31 boarding of an aid ship.

ROUTE A RUSE?

The Amalthea set sail from Greece on Saturday on a voyage that would normally see it arrive in Gaza by Wednesday. Rerouting to El Arish would still require the ship skirt Gazan waters, with Israeli warships tracking it all the way.

Al-Jazeera satellite channel, citing its correspondent accompanying the aid ship, said four Israeli warships were pursuing the Libyan vessel. It also said the aid ship had a technical problem that engineers were seeking to fix.

"The ship has received an ultimatum from the Israelis that we have to leave the area by tonight. We are not going to do that. Any other news is part of an attempt to distort information and trying to impose a scenario that suits the Israelis," said Sawani, whose foundation is chaired by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.

World outcry at the bloodshed aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara prompted Israel to ease overland trade with Gaza, but it has maintained the naval blockade.

On June 5, the navy commandeered the Irish-owned aid ship Rachel Corrie after it refused orders to turn back or dock in Israel for its cargo to be vetted for possible transfer to Gaza.

Criticism of Israel, led by its former ally Turkey, has focused on the continued plight of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians, many of whom depend on U.N. aid handouts.

Organizers said the Amalthea, with 12 crew and up to 10 activists on board, complied with international regulations.

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