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Palestinian Authority to investigate links to arms ship

Captain says he's officer in Palestinian Authority

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Palestinian Authority will set up its own investigative commission to determine whether any of its officials were involved in the voyage of a ship containing 50 tons of weapons that Israel captured last week, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Monday.

If the commission turns up any evidence that Palestinian Authority officials were involved with the arms shipment, said Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudieneh, they will be held accountable. The conclusions of the authority's investigation will be turned over to U.S. and European officials, he said in a statement.

The captain of the ship said Monday that he worked for the Palestinian Authority and took his orders from a man he identified as Adel Awadala, a Palestinian Authority official in Greece.

He said he knew the vessel was carrying arms and expected the mission to fail.The ship's captain told reporters from his jail cell that he was an officer in the Palestinian Authority

The Israeli government has accused the Palestinian Authority of being behind the arms shipment, which included Katyusha rockets, rifles, mortar shells, mines and a variety of anti-tank missiles. The ship was captured in the Red Sea about 300 miles south of the Israeli port of Eliat.

The Palestinian Authority has denied any involvement in the arms shipment, saying Israel is trying to use the incident to thwart efforts by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to move forward on a ceasefire.

Zinni recently headed home after four days of intensive talks with Israelis and Palestinians. He is due back in the Middle East in a little over a week.

Captain knew contents of vessel

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are heightened by Israel's seizure of a ship containing weapons. CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports (January 6)

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Speaking Monday with reporters from a prison cell in Ashkelon, a coastal city about 40 miles southwest of Jerusalem, ship captain Omar Akawi identified himself as an employee of the Palestinian Navy and the Palestinian Transportation Ministry.

"I'm an officer in the Palestinian Authority," said Akawi, who told reporters he knew what his vessel contained. He also thought the mission would fail, said Akawi.

Akawi said that he took his orders from a man he identified as Adel Awadala, a Palestinian Authority official in Greece.

The plan involved picking up arms from a vessel off the coast of Iran, traveling through the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and anchoring off Alexandria, Egypt, Akawi said.

His ship was to unload its cargo to a smaller vessel that would drop the arms in floating packages off the Gaza coast, he said.

He picked up the cargo as instructed, Akawi said, but was intercepted about 310 miles south of Eilat, an Israeli port near the Egyptian border.

Akawi said he believed his mission would fail because he thought he would be caught in the Persian Gulf by American forces or in the Suez Canal by Egyptian forces.

He said he told Awadala of his concerns, but said Awadala told him to "leave it for God" and head to sea.

"I'm a soldier," he said. "I have to obey orders."

Akawi said he left Aden, Yemen, and traveled to what he described as a "fixed point" near the coast of Iran. The ship was met there by a vessel "without any name, without anything," he said. "They gave me these things. They were boxes, only closed boxes. I took it as a cargo, but I know that inside there is some weapons."

A man involved in the loading, said Akawi, was a "guy from Hezbollah," referring to the Lebanese guerrilla group. The man spoke with a Syrian or Lebanese accent, he said.

Asked if he thought the leaders of the Palestinian Authority knew of his mission, Akawi said he did not think they knew. Awadala may have told them, but "from my side, I don't think that they know," he said.

The Israeli government has said it had "iron-clad" evidence the ship, carrying 50 tons of weapons, was linked to the Palestinian Authority.

Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Arafat of ordering the mission.


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