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Israelis say they seized Palestinian arms ship

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli officials said Friday they intercepted a ship in the Red Sea owned by the Palestinian Authority carrying 50 tons of weapons. Palestinian officials shortly afterward denied any connection with the ship.

The claims and counter-claims came as U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni was meeting with both sides to encourage peace talks.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudieneh said of the shipment: "The Palestinian Authority has nothing to do with it, doesn't know anything about it." He said the announcement of the seizure was an Isreali attempt to undermine Zinni's mission to the region.

The Israelis said the ship was seized Thursday off the coast of Saudi Arabia and is being brought to the southern Israeli port of Eilat.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Gen. Shaul Mofaz, told a news conference the ship was carrying weaponry and ammunition, including Katyusha rockets, rifles, mortar shells, mines and a variety of anti-tank missiles. He said not all the ship's cargo had been checked.

"The connection between the Palestinian Authority and the smuggling operation is unequivocal, clear, and undeniable," said Mofaz. "Official figures in the Palestinian Authority were involved, among them senior officials in the Palestinian naval police."

He said the captain of the intercepted ship was an officer in the Palestinian naval police. The shipment, he said, came from Iran.

Israeli television station, Channel 2, said Zinni had been informed on Thursday about the seizure of the ship.

CNN's Mike Hanna says a new cache of weapons that have been captured puts more pressure on the tenuous Mideast peace process (January 4)

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In-Depth: Mideast Struggle for Peace 
Zinni: Old hand in troubled region 

Zinni had met separately Friday with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, trying on his four-day mission to the region to secure a lasting cease-fire on the ground. He was also promoting peace talks between the two adversaries on the Mitchell plan, previously agreed to by all sides for curbing violence and renewing talks.

Israel Radio reported Israeli officials told Zinni that they believed terror attacks are already planned and that attackers are only waiting for a green light from their leaders.

Sharon is also reported to have told Zinni that he will not back down on his insistence for "seven days of quiet" before Israel will take part in cease-fire negotiations.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said this week that the number of attacks has fallen after Arafat called for a halt to violence on December 16, following a series of suicide attacks on Israelis in early December.

Along with Sharon, Zinni met with Peres and Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer.

As Zinni met with Sharon, Israel Defense Forces entered the Palestinian village of Tel, south of Nablus, with tanks and armored vehicles, in what the IDF said was an operation to pursue terrorists in the village.

The IDF said that when its forces entered the village, they were confronted by armed Palestinians and a gun battle ensued. As a result, the IDF said, one Palestinian was killed and two others were arrested. Palestinian security sources said they were unable to identify the person killed because the IDF still held the body.

Israel declared the whole area a closed military zone and said the operation was continuing. Tel is in Area A, an area under full Palestinian control.

In recent days, Israel has eased restrictions at some checkpoints and has begun withdrawing forces from several West Bank towns. But IDF forces continue military operations they say are aimed at finding militants, sealing off towns like Tel in hopes of finding them.

Palestinian officials have called the easing of restrictions a sham. They say that many main roads in the Palestinian territories can only be used by Jewish settlers, forcing Palestinians to use donkey carts or walk along much longer bypass routes. The Palestinians call the restrictions punitive measures against them by Israel.


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