Late on Tuesday night, special forces belonging to the Israeli navy stopped and searched the German freighter Francop. They found enough munitions to wage a small war: more than 3,000 rockets, hand grenades, armor-piercing ammunition and numerous crates of assault rifle rounds. Had the dangerous cargo not been discovered, it would have been enough for the Lebanon-based Islamist militants from Hezbollah to fight Israel for a month or longer, estimates Israeli navy commander Rani Ben-Yehuda.
In total, 36 of the 400 containers on board the Francop were intended for Hezbollah, Ben-Yehuda told journalists on Wednesday. A military spokesman said that a document found on board the ship makes it clear that the weapons originated in Iran.
The Israelis initially contacted the Francop by radio, saying that they wanted to conduct a routine inspection and boarded the ship -- which was travelling from an Egyptian port -- roughly 180 kilometers (112 miles) south of Cyprus.
The speed with which the troops of Commando Unit 13 found the weapons makes it clear that they knew what they were looking for. The ship was diverted to the Israeli port of Ashdod where the crates full of weapons were unloaded. Images of the hundreds of crates full of weapons confiscated from the Francop were broadcast on Israeli television.
The Israeli intelligence service had reportedly been following the weapons cargo for some 10 days following its departure from Iran. The containers were initially loaded onto a smaller, Iranian freighter, which then charted a course for the Egyptian port of Domiat, all the time under Israeli surveillance. There, the containers were transferred to the Francop, which was scheduled to make stops in Cyprus and then the Syrian port of Latakia where it was to be unloaded, according to a source close to the Israeli intelligence service.
According to the Israeli military, the weapons then were to have been smuggled over the border into Lebanon and delivered to Hezbollah. If true, the Francop case sheds light on the convoluted path taken by weapons deliveries from Iran to their Hezbollah allies.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem have denied the Israeli version of events. According to an Iranian television Web site, the two made the announcement at a joint press conference. There were "no weapons of Iranian production" on board the ship, they said.
Still, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the decision to board the ship was taken at top levels of government: Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave the green light on advice from the military. They had been receiving briefings about the progress of the Francop for days.
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