Libya ship 'stalls' off Gaza as Israeli gunboats hover

JERUSALEM (AFP) – A Libyan ship loaded with aid for Gaza apparently stalled off the coast of the besieged territory on Wednesday, its every movement closely watched by a fleet of Israeli warships hovering nearby.

As of Wednesday morning, it was still unclear whether the freighter would rechart a course for the Egyptian port of El-Arish, or would continue to head for the Gaza Strip in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade on the territory.

Crates are loaded onto the cargo ship Amalthea at the Greek port of Lavrio on July 9. AFP

"The boat is in international waters, 60 miles from El-Arish and 80 miles from Gaza," a military spokeswoman said. "As far as I know it is not moving."

Overnight, the vessel appeared to have stalled with engine trouble, according to Israel public radio and the Kadhafi Foundation charity involved in the shipment.

Public radio, whose monitor has been listening in to radio transmissions between the ship and the navy, broadcast what it said was the ship's captain reporting his main engine had failed.

The radio later reported that the Israeli boats were within visual range of the vessel, and were contacting the captain with questions every time there was suspicious movement on deck.

In Tripoli, Yussef Sawan, head of the Kadhafi Foundation, confirmed the cargo ship, the Amalthea, had engine trouble, but blamed its lack of progress on the Israeli navy.

"Because of a malfunction, the cargo ship was moving slowly but now it has stopped. The Israeli navy is preventing us from moving," Sawan told AFP.

"Eight Israeli warships are surrounding the Libyan aid ship for Gaza and preventing the continuation of its journey," he said.

The ship, which is carrying a cargo of 2,000 tonnes of foodstuffs and medicine, has been charted by the charity which is run by Seif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

Sawan said earlier that the warships were "threatening" the cargo ship which he said was still headed for Gaza, denying an Egyptian claim that it was due to arrive in El-Arish, an Egyptian port some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Gaza.

"The ship is still headed for Gaza and will not change course," Sawan said.

On Tuesday, the ship's Cuban captain had told the navy he would change course and head for El-Arish, an Israeli official told AFP.

However, warships continued to closely monitor the ship, fearing the move was a ruse, he said.

Speaking to the Maariv daily, a senior military official said naval forces were not expecting any problems from those on board but they were prepared to respond if it became necessary.

"We do not expect any resistance," he said. "But if our soldiers do encounter problems, they will not hesitate to use force."

The last time Israel tried to stop Gaza aid ships the resulting skirmishes left nine Turks, including a dual US national, dead while dozens of other people were injured, including nine Israeli commandos.

Washington on Tuesday urged both parties to act with caution.

"We have urged the Libyan government to avoid any unnecessary confrontation," said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, calling on all parties "to act responsibly" in meeting Gaza's needs.

Mashallah Zwei, a representative of the charity on the boat, told AFP on Tuesday that the navy had "threatened to send their warships to intercept the boat and escort it toward the (southern Israeli) port of Ashdod if we do not change course.

The 92-metre (302-foot) freighter had left Greece on Saturday carrying a crew of 12 of various nationalities, along with nine passengers: six Libyans, a Nigerian, a Moroccan and an Algerian national, the shipping agent said.

Earlier this week, Israel's military published the results of an internal inquiry into the May 31 raid, which found that while mistakes had been made, the troops' use of live fire was "justified".

Global pressure over the May 31 debacle forced Israel to significantly change its policy on Gaza, and now it prevents only the import of arms and goods it says could be used to build weapons or fortifications.

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