- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Iran the "center of world terror" yesterday and said a recently captured arms shipment showed that Iran and the Palestinians were collaborating to strike at Israel.

Israel said it would soon release documents that show the Palestinian Authority was responsible for the 50 tons of weapons captured by Israeli commandos Thursday on a cargo ship in the Red Sea. "We have all the evidence and it will unfold, and we will present it soon," said Sharon adviser Daniel Ayalon.

The Palestinian Authority insists it had nothing to do with the arms shipment and said its senior security officials would question those accused by Israel of trying to smuggle the weapons.

While Middle East violence has dropped sharply since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Dec. 16 speech calling for an end to attacks against Israel, the dispute over the weapons-laden ship has kept the two sides exchanging heated words.

The weapons included 62 Katyusha rockets that could reach Israeli cities from Palestinian areas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher described as "credible" the Israeli accusations that the Palestinians were trying to smuggle the weapons.

"We have some of the evidence," Mr. Boucher said, adding that U.S. diplomats had examined a number of the weapons. "The quantity and quality of these weapons are of serious concern."

Mr. Sharon said that if the Palestinians had obtained the weapons, it would have put the country "in an impossible situation where all of Israel becomes hostage to Yasser Arafat."

A senior Israeli military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Israel believed Iran sold the weapons to the Palestinians for $10 million far below their actual worth in hopes it would allow Iran to threaten Israel by proxy.

At a meeting Sunday, Israel demanded that the Palestinian Authority punish those involved in the shipment. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni was present at the meeting, the Israeli military official said.

Israel has accused Mr. Arafat of direct involvement in the arms shipment, saying an operation of this magnitude, involving millions of dollars worth of rockets, rifles and anti-tank missiles, could not have taken place without the approval of Mr. Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority.

"The great danger [to Israel] are those relations that were developed between the Palestinian Authority and Iran," Mr. Sharon told about 200 visiting American Jewish leaders. "Iran at the present time is the center of world terror."

Iran has denied involvement with the weapons shipment. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, speaking Monday on Iranian television, said Israel was making the accusations to "intensify a crackdown on the Palestinian intifada," or uprising.

The Palestinian Authority has acknowledged that the Palestinian captain of the weapons ship, the Karine A, is in its naval unit, but has denied links to the shipment.

"The Palestinian Authority is not interested and does not want any form of escalation in this situation," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said at a news conference.

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