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Libya ship with Gaza aid stalled, hobbles at sea

world Updated: Jul 14, 2010 13:03 IST

A Libyan charity's ship carrying aid for the Gaza Strip was stalled in international waters on Wednesday, the Israeli military said, as questions persisted over whether it planned to defy an Israeli naval blockade of the Palestinian territory.

With Israel insisting the ship would not reach Hamas-ruled Gaza, the potential for a showdown on the high seas continued to loom. Framing the faceoff was an Israeli naval raid of another blockade-busting ship in May that turned deadly.

The captain of the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea told the Israeli navy just before midnight Tuesday that engine troubles had hobbled the ship, and that efforts were being made to repair it. The military, which had four missile ships tailing the Libyan vessel, said it was still idled about 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Gaza early Wednesday.

Israeli military officials said on Tuesday that the captain informed Israel he was heading for the Egyptian port of el-Arish, near Gaza. Egypt had promised to transfer the ship's supplies to Gaza if it docked there.

However, a spokesman for the Libyan mission insisted the ship still intended to try to reach the Palestinian territory, but wouldn't violently resist any efforts to stop them.

"First and foremost, we want to arrive to Gaza. If this is impossible, we don't want to subject anyone to danger," Youssef Sawani, an official with the Gadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation who was in contact with the boat, told the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera television station.

Sawani said communications with the boat had been jammed. The charity, headed by the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, said Amalthea left Greece on Saturday carrying 2,000 tons of food and medical supplies.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev had repeated a standing offer, inviting the activists to sail to the Israeli port of Ashdod and unload the supplies there.

The deaths of nine pro-Palestinian activists in the May 31 raid focused international attention on Israel's blockade of Gaza, imposed after the Islamic militant and anti-Israel Hamas overran the Palestinian territory in June 2007. The international criticism forced Israel to ease its land blockade of the territory but it has maintained the naval embargo, insisting it is vital to keep weapons out of Hamas' hands.

A Gaza health official said a 42-year-old Palestinian woman was killed and four other Gazans were wounded late Tuesday by an Israeli tank shell. The military said it opened fire after spotting people near the security fence they suspected might be laying explosive devices.

The Gaza blockade and the challenges to it have caused Israel serious diplomatic damage, putting it on the defensive against demands for inquiries and criticism for its role in Gaza's plight. Israel says the commandos who took part in the May 31 raid were defending themselves against violent pro-Palestinian activists.

Activists have said they acted in self-defense after Israeli troops landed on their ship.

Israel has resisted calls for a UN led inquiry but has appointed two panels, one military and one civilian, to review the raid.

Findings released on Monday from the military-commissioned report found flawed planning and intelligence-gathering but concluded the commandos were justified in opening fire after being confronted by violent pro-Palestinian activists on board the lead ship.

The mandate of the civilian inquiry is limited to investigating the legality of the operation.

Two international observers have been attached to the civilian commission, which is led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court judge.