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Seized Ship Overshadows Zinni Peace Mission - 2002-01-06


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accuses Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of ordering the purchase of a boatload of illegal weapons that Israel seized in the Red Sea. The Palestinian Authority denies knowledge of the shipment. The accusations have overshadowed a four-day peace mission by US envoy Anthony Zinni.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says Yasser Arafat made a strategic choice to bring about regional deterioration that would lead to war when he ordered the illegal weapons. Mr. Sharon was speaking to reporters in the southern port of Eilat, where the seized vessel is moored. Mr. Sharon called the vessel a "ship of terror."

Israel seized the boat and 50 tons of ammunition, anti-tank missiles, rifles, and other arms on Thursday in the Red Sea. Israel says members of the Palestinian naval police and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militant group were on board. The Palestinians have denied any links to the arms smuggling. So have Iran and Hezbollah.

The weapons controversy has clouded US envoy Zinni's efforts to implement a truce. But he met with officials on both sides and organized a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security officers during his four-day visit.

Mr. Zinni did not appear to be letting the weapons controversy distract his peace mission. "The focus is on security and building confidence," he said, "ensuring we create a situation and environment that eliminates terror, that we begin a process that will lead us beyond a cease-fire and into a kind of comprehensive and lasting peace."

The US envoy heads back to Washington on Monday, but is expected back in the region within two-weeks to continue his peace mission.

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