Tehran: Iran is sending aid ships to blockaded Gaza, state radio said on Monday -- a move likely to be considered provocative by Israel which accuses Tehran of arming the Palestinian enclave's Islamist rulers, Hamas.
One ship left port on Sunday and another will depart by Friday, loaded with food, construction material and toys, the report said. The boats would be part of international efforts to break Israel's isolation of the Gaza Strip.
"Until the end of the Gaza blockade, Iran will continue to ship aid," said an official at Iran's Society for the Defence of the Palestinian Nation.
While Israel has long suspected Iran, which rejects the Jewish state's right to exist, of supplying weapons to Hamas, Tehran says it only provides moral support to the group.
Israeli troops two weeks ago boarded a flotilla of Turkish aid ships heading to Gaza on May 31 and killed nine pro-Palestinian activists, most of them Turks.
Public opinion in Muslim countries was outraged by the killings. An official of the Iranian Red Crescent Society's youth organisation said some 100,000 Iranians had volunteered as potential crew for aid ships, Iran daily reported.
A senior Iranian official said earlier Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards were ready to provide a military escort to aid ships heading to Gaza if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei so commands.
But the Guards' deputy head, Hossein Salami, said there were no plans to do so. "Such a thing is not on our agenda," he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency on Monday.
Any such military mobilisation would risk a major confrontation with Israel, which fears Iran's nuclear enrichment program is aimed at developing atomic bombs.
The Jewish state regards Iran's nuclear ambitions as a mortal threat. Iran says its nuclear program is meant solely to yield electricity or isotopes for medicine and agriculture.
First Published: Monday, June 14, 2010, 15:50