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U.S. Calls Reports of Palestinian Weapons Smuggling "Credible"

Spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. diplomats had seen some of the evidence and were ready to accept Israel’s claim that Palestinians were trying to smuggle in large amounts of weapons outlawed by the 1993 Oslo Accord.

U.S. officials, however, have not ruled out the possibility that the weapons were intended for Hezbollah, Hamas or another extremist group.

The vessel, Karine A, captured by the Israeli Navy 300 miles from Israel’s port Eilat in the Red Sea, contained Katyusha rocket launchers, antitank missiles, mines and 3,400 pounds of C-4 explosive, according to Israeli officials.

Boucher said “the quantity and quality of these weapons are of serious concern.”

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has denied any knowledge of the weapons shipment. At a meeting yesterday with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Arafat said any Palestinian found to be involved in the smuggling would be punished. He also said he welcomed international help for a Palestinian investigation of the Israeli accusations.

The captain of the captured ship granted jail-house interviews Monday to Reuters and Fox News Channel, among other media outlets. Captain Omar Akawi told reporters that he took his orders from a weapons agent of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and that his cargo was supposed to have been transferred to three small boats near Alexandria, Egypt, for later “unload in Gaza.”

The 44-year-old captain identified himself as a 25-year member of Arafat’s Fatah organization and a naval adviser to the Palestinian Authority’s transport ministry. He did not directly link the arms to Arafat and said he didn’t know if senior Palestinian officials were aware of the operation.

Akawi described a slow trip north up the Suez Canal in which he was in regular radio contact with Adel Awadallah. The Israeli intelligence says that name is an alias for Adel Mughrabi, a weapons buyer who is said to be a accountable to Fuad Shubaki, a close aide to Arafat.

When asked why he was granting interviews, Captain Akawi said he wanted to let his family know that he was all right.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Karine A and declared that Arafat had made himself “a bitter enemy of Israel.”

An Israeli government spokesman said the cabinet is considering further steps which could include severing diplomatic ties to the Palestinian Authority, as it briefly did last month. But in the meantime it says it is cooperating with a Bush administration’s effort to secure a truce.

U.S. envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni returned to Washington Monday after meeting with negotiators on both sides over the weekend. He said he still saw progress in Israel’s willingness to ease West Bank blockades and the Palestinians’ arrests of suspected militants.

The Bush administration is pushing both camps to implement a truce plan drafted last year by CIA chief George Tenet. Under the plan, Israel is to lift travel bans on Palestinians and pull back troops to positions held before the latest round of fighting, which broke out in September 2000. The Palestinians are required to arrest suspected militants and prevent further attacks on Israelis.

Once a truce is in place, the two sides are to follow a plan created by the international commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. The so-called Mitchell Plan calls on Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza and says the Palestinians must dismantle militant groups.

Although the next U.S. diplomatic move is not clear, the Bush administration has vowed to remain engaged in the effort to bring the two sides together and work towards peace in the region.

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