- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2002

JERUSALEM The Palestinian naval captain captured by Israeli commandos with 50 tons of weapons on his ship said in a prison interview yesterday that he's a longtime member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement who undertook the risky operation to help the outgunned Palestinians defend themselves.
"I'm a soldier. I obeyed orders," said Omar Akawi, adding that he picked up the rockets, mortars and anti-tank missiles off Iran's coast in the Persian Gulf and that they were headed for Palestinian-controlled Gaza.
Mr. Akawi, captured Thursday along with 12 crewmen in the Red Sea, said he works in the Palestinian Transportation Ministry and received his instructions from an official in the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian leadership yesterday confirmed that Mr. Akawi was a midranking member of its naval unit but continued to insist that it had nothing to do with the weapons shipment.
"It's a kind of propaganda, unfortunately. It's a false way to undermine the peace process," said Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian parliament speaker.
[The Agence France-Presse news service reported that Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian leader, had ordered an investigation of the arms shipment.]
The Israeli public, despondent after 15 months of violence, has embraced the ship's seizure on the high seas as a throwback to past military victories, while officials used it to lambaste Mr. Arafat, insisting that any smuggling effort of this magnitude had to be approved at the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority.
As the dispute raged, Mr. Akawi gave interviews to Israeli television and the Fox News Channel in Ashkelon Prison on Israel's Mediterranean coast.
The seizure of the weapons overshadowed the four-day visit by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, who flew home yesterday without getting the two sides to agree to a formal cease-fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his Cabinet would convene soon for a review of Israel's contacts with the Palestinian Authority.
Israel seized the ship in international waters and said all 13 crewmen were Arabs, including four Palestinians. Yet Arab nations have not denounced the Israeli action, and no one has claimed ownership of the vessel or the weapons.
While expressing support for the Palestinian cause, Mr. Akawi appeared relaxed and said he hoped a Palestinian state might one day live in peace with Israel.
Describing himself as a Fatah member since 1976, Mr. Akawi said the operation was overseen by a Palestinian Authority official he identified as Adel Awadallah.
Israel says Mr. Awadallah is in charge of "smuggling operations" for the Palestinians, but the Palestinians have declined to discuss his position.
Mr. Akawi said he knew the operation had a high risk of failure, but he agreed to do it because "it's the Palestinian right to defend ourselves."
Mr. Akawi said he believed Iran and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah were involved. One of his Palestinian crewmen had received training from Hezbollah in Lebanon and recognized a Hezbollah man when the weapons were being loaded, he said.
The captain said the plan was to go through the Suez Canal to Alexandria, Egypt, where three smaller vessels would pick up the weapons. The weapons, loaded in airtight containers, would then be placed in Mediterranean waters and allowed to drift to the Gaza coast.
Mr. Akawi said he did not know whether senior Palestinian leaders were aware of the shipment, with an estimated value of tens of millions of dollars, an immense sum for the impoverished Palestinians.
But Mr. Sharon insisted that Mr. Arafat was behind the operation.
"When Arafat gave the instruction to purchase the firearms discovered on the ship, he made a strategic choice to bring about regional deterioration which would lead to war," Mr. Sharon said Sunday at Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, where the weapons were displayed.

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