Averting showdown, Gaza-bound ship heads for Egypt

A Libyan aid ship, initially bent on busting the Gaza blockade, entered Egyptian waters on Wednesday.

El-Arish: A Libyan aid ship, initially bent on busting the Gaza blockade, entered Egyptian waters on Wednesday and was expected to dock at the port of El-Arish, Egyptian state television reported.

The news appeared to allay concerns of confrontation with the Israeli Navy, which had reportedly threatened to use force if the ship did not either turn back or head for Egypt.

"The Libyan ship carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza has entered Egyptian territorial waters and is headed to El-Arish," the report said.

The Libyan charity that chartered the Almathea, the Kadhafi Foundation, confirmed that the aid ship was headed to Egypt.

The television said the ship was approximately 13 nautical miles from El-Arish, and officials there said it was expected to arrive around 8:30 pm (17:30 GMT).

Earlier, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said it had received a request for the Amalthea to dock and that permission had been granted.

"As soon as the ship arrives in El-Arish, Egyptian authorities will unload its cargo and hand the aid to the Egyptian Red Crescent, which will deliver it to the Palestinian side," he said.

"We have taken all measures and are ready with the assistance of the Egyptian Red Crescent to unload the cargo and have it delivered" to Gaza, North Sinai governor Murad Muwafi said.

Officials at El-Arish said they expected the ship, laden with 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine, to be unloaded on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, the Kadhafi Foundation had said four Israeli warships were on either side of the freighter, trying to prevent it from heading to the Gaza coast.

The foundation`s Yussef Sawan said the Israelis had given the captain the choice of either turning back or heading to El-Arish. "If not, they have threatened to resort to force."

Later, Sawan said that "out of concern for the security of everybody on board, the foundation decided to head (the boat) for El-Arish and to unload its cargo there."

He said the mission had "scored points" for the Palestinian people and for the reconstruction of Gaza.

The Amalthea had moved slowly for part of the day after experiencing engine trouble overnight and stalling at a spot in international waters 60 nautical miles from El-Arish and 80 from Gaza, the Israeli military said.

Speaking to the Maariv daily, a senior military official said naval forces were not expecting any problems from those on board but they were prepared to respond if it became necessary.

"We do not expect any resistance," he said. "But if our soldiers do encounter problems, they will not hesitate to use force."

On May 31, when Israeli commandos boarded a flotilla of Gaza-bound aid ships, they killed nine Turkish activists, and dozens of other people were wounded, including nine of the soldiers.

Tony Blair, the representative of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, on Wednesday urged "all sides to act with restraint."

"The most important thing is to avoid confrontation, which is why the established channels for delivering aid to Gaza should be used in accordance with the new policy we have been working on.

Following international pressure, Israel has agreed to ease its four-year-old blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

The 92-metre (302-foot) Amalthea had left Greece on Saturday carrying a crew of 12, the shipping agent said. There were also nine passengers -- six Libyans, a Nigerian, a Moroccan and an Algerian.

Earlier this week, the Israeli military published the results of an internal inquiry into the deadly May 31 raid, which found that while mistakes had been made, the troops` use of live fire was "justified".

And Israel again defended its actions during a hearing of the UN Human Rights Committee on Wednesday.

"No ship can breach this blockade, be they civil or military ships. Whoever violates the blockade is heading for retaliation," Israeli envoy Sari Rubenstein told the committee.

Israel says it now prevents only the arms and goods it says could be used to build weapons or fortifications from entering Gaza, but that its naval blockade will remain in place to prevent Palestinian armed groups from bringing weapons by sea.

Bureau Report

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