Israeli naval commanders have seized a ship containing weapons to arm terrorists, a ship linked to Iran and further proof of its clandestine arms-smuggling networks.
On Tuesday, Israeli naval commanders boarded the Victoria, a German-owned container ship operated by French shipping giant CMA-CGM, some 200 miles off the coast of Al-Arish, Egypt.
The Israelis came equipped with a list of 39 containers, which they believed contained weapons bound for Hamas in the Gaza strip. And they were right.
Neatly stacked beneath sacks of lentils and cotton in three of the containers, they found crates full of long-range mortars as well as C-704 radar-guided anti-ship missiles that would have given Hamas the ability to sink Israeli navy ships at distances of up to 35 kilometers.
Israeli military spokesman called the Chinese-made missiles “strategic weapons,” and brought the ship into Ashdod for further inspection. In all, they seized more than 25 tons of weapons they believed were intended for Hamas.
Two days later, authorities in Malaysia announced they had seized two containers from on board a Malaysian ship bound for Iran that contained equipment for Iran’s nuclear program.
“The parts were labeled as boiler parts,” federal police chief Ismail Omar told the official news agency. “Detailed investigations are being carried out with the help of Interpol and relevant experts.”
Security analysts interviewed by Newsmax believe that Israel probably had its own intelligence — possibly satellite photographs — that allowed it to identify the containers with the weapons as they were being loaded onto the A.S. Victoria in Latakia, Syria, before the ship sailed for Mersin, Turkey, and then on to Egypt.
But Malaysia has no such capabilities. And neither does Interpol, the international police organization, headquartered in Lyons, France.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection initiated its Container Security Initiative in 2002, with the goal of establishing tighter liaison with foreign customs services to identify suspicious cargo bound for the United States.
“Our goal was to extend our border outward,” former Customs commissioner Rob Bonner told Newsmax. “We now have a system to inspect high risk containers and run them through security inspection at outbound ports — Rotterdam, Singapore, and so forth.”
Malaysia signed on as a partner to the Container Security Initiative in January 2003, and since then has been inspecting containers based on intelligence provided by the United States. Not all of those containers are bound for U.S. ports.
The A.S. Victoria loaded weapons in Latakia that were brought to Syria by the two Iranian warships that transited the Suez Canal in February, Israeli officials believe. It was the first time Iranian warships had transited the Suez Canal since the 1979 revolution in Iran.
The C-704 missiles found in the containers are actually an Iranian-made version of the Chinese original known as the Nasr-1. The Chinese set up an assembly plant for the missiles in Iran, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Iran publicly inaugurated the Nasr-1 assembly line in March 2010.
The missiles have a range of 35 km and carry a warhead of 130 kg of high explosives. “There were also instructional booklets in Farsi,” said deputy navy commander Rear Admiral Rani Ben-Yehuda.
The C-704 is an upgraded, longer-range version of the C-701. Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon used a similar Chinese anti-shipping missile to cripple an Israeli navy ship during the 2006 war.
In addition to the six missiles, the Israelis also found two radar systems whose consoles bore the nameplate Kelvin Hughes, a British manufacturer.
Defense electronics experts said that the Kelvin Hughes systems appear to be a “dual-use” maritime radar used to track surface vessels that had been adapted either by the Chinese or the Iranians for military use.
“Somebody went to the trouble to do the interface and link all this to the fire control system” of the C-704 missile, one industry expert tells Newsmax. “I don’t know who did that, but I am willing to bet two things: First, they didn’t do it just to help Hamas, but [also] for their own weapons systems; second, almost certainly this is something more likely to have been worked by the Chinese.”
The Iranian news agency Borna News has released photographs of Iranian “Bavar” class fast patrol in dry dock, getting fitted with the same Nasr anti-shipping missile and slotted waveguide antenna that the Israelis seized on board the A. S. Victoria.
“I would be asking the British how many of these radar systems have been sold to China,” the defense industry expert said.
Video released by the Iranian government of the Nasr-1 missile shows that one version uses a TV gimbaled sensor, meaning that the missile is also being produced with a TV terminal guidance system instead of radar, the industry expert said.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz inspected the seized weapons, arrayed on the quay in the port of Ashdod.
“To all those who questioned and attacked and criticized Israel for stopping Gaza-bound ships in order to check them, here is the answer,” Netanyahu said. “Every day there are efforts by Iran, Syria and terrorist organizations to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas . . . The weaponry discovered onboard the Victoria proves why Israel needs to prevent ships from sailing freely into the Gaza Strip.”
Defense Minister Barak noted that the missiles “could have impacted our navy ships and gas fields.” Israel recently discovered vast deposits of natural gas in offshore fields not far from the Gaza Strip.
This is the third time that a German-owned ship has been used by Iran to transport weapons. The Hansa India was intercepted in October 2009 bringing weapons to Hamas, and the Francop was intercepted the following month.
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Berlin said it was a “good question” why Germany has failed to implement unilateral sanctions to stop the leasing of German ships involved in circumventing United Nations sanctions on Iran.
The French company operating the A.S. Victoria, CMA-CGM, has also been involved in previous arms smuggling attempts.
In October, CMA-CGM acknowledged that one of its ships had picked up 13 shipping containers of rockets, grenades, and explosives at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and taken them to Lagos, Nigeria, where they were seized by Nigerian authorities.
The company said it was the victim of a false Customs declaration and that labels on the crates indicated they contained stone and glass wool.
CMA-CGM was acquired in 1996 by Jacques R. Saadé, a Franco-Lebanese dual-national, and is now the largest shipping company in France and the third largest in the world. It is partly owned by Yildirim Group, a family-run industrial group based in Istanbul, Turkey.
One of the newer board members, Denis Ranque, was the CEO of the French defense electronic giant Thales from January 1998 until May 2009. Prior to that, he was CEO of Thomson Marconi Sonar, a joint venture between Thomson-CSF of France and the British firm GEC-Marconi.
The Nigerian arms shipment sparked a diplomatic incident after the Iranian foreign minister admitted Iran was behind the shipment. Nigeria expelled an Iranian diplomat involved in arranging the shipment to an armed rebel group in nearby Gambia.
The man in charge of Iran’s arms smuggling networks, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, is also the head of the Qods Force, the overseas operations task force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).
The United States believes Gen. Suleimani is in charge of Iran’s intelligence networks inside Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been responsible for smuggling weapons to guerilla fighters in both countries.
The Qods Force also runs training camps in Iran for the Afghan Taliban and for al-Qaida operatives.
Gen. Suleimani and his network were also involved in planning and carrying out the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, according to sources at the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
A penetration of Suleimani’s inner circle could spell trouble for Iran’s far-flung overseas smuggling, intelligence, and terrorist networks.
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