The Israeli Navy's elite Shayetet 13 commandos intercepted the German-owned A.S. Victoria Tuesday, March 15 about 320 kilometers off Israel's Mediterranean coast on its way from the Turkish port of Mercin to Egyptian El Arish with Alexandria its final destination.
The Liberian-flagged vessel was carrying a large consignment of weapons including C-704 shore-to-ship missiles with a range of 35 kilometers and heavy mortars shells bound for the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip. debkafile reports the consignment was picked up at the Syrian port of Latakia after being offloaded there by the two Iranian warships which transited the Suez Canal February 22.
The ship's documents and crew showed the vessel had departed from Latakia Port in Syria before proceeding to Mercin Port in Turkey. At least three crates of weapons were uncovered on board. Hundreds of others will be inspected when the ship reaches Israeli port. The crew did not resist the Israeli naval commandoes who boarded the vessel.
The US and Israeli navies did not stop the Iranian Alvand missile destroyer and Kharg logistical cruiser when they applied to transit the canal last month, asserting that they could not be stopped as they were not carrying contraband weapons. Egyptian Suez Canal officials made the same determination after reporting they had been inspected. Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the voyage was no more harmful than a "cadets' outing."
debkafile alone reported the Iranian warships were carrying missiles
It now turns out that the clean bill of health they all gave the Iranian warships was not based on fact.
At the same time, debkafile's military sources report that from the time that the Iranian navy ships entered the Mediterranean, US and Israeli warships and spy planes kept their movements under close surveillance: Around Feb. 25-26, the Kharg was seen offloading a large batch of containers at Syrian Navy ordnance depots in Latakia port.
In the second half of last week, the German A.S Victoria docked there and was seen loading the containers delivered by the Iranian warships at Latakia.
It now appears that the ship was instructed to detour to the Turkish port and wait there for a couple of days to disguise its real destination.
But after learning that the arms were bound for El Arish, in northern Sinai, Israel decided to apprehend the cargo before it could be delivered, whether to Hamas in Gaza or radical Egyptian Muslims, which Iran has been backing and funding.
Hamas would have arranged to have had it picked up at Al Arish and spirited into the Gaza through its smuggling tunnels. But it is possible too that Iran, while originally planning to consign the weapons to the Palestinian extremists in Gaza, changed their destination later to Egypt.
Much about this episode is still obscure, except for the clear evidence of military intelligence cooperation between Tehran, Damascus, Ankara, Hizballah and Hamas in the smuggling of Iranian weapons to radical groups in the region.
Cairo may have something to say about the seizure in international waters of a ship bound for Egyptian waters, albeit one surreptitiously carrying arms. Ankara, too, will not enjoy the exposure of Mercin, a port under the close supervision of the Turkish Navy, as a hub for the illegal transfer of Iranian war materials to the Palestinian Hamas and anti-government forces fighting Arab regimes.
debkafile's intelligence sources report that several boats loaded with arms for the Libyan rebels sailed out of Mercin in the last few days. They were bound for the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
It was decided in Jerusalem that whatever the destination of the Iranian weapons cargo may be, severing this link in Iran's new weapons smuggling route was absolutely essential.