Lebanon to proceed with all-female aid trip to Gaza this weekend

Transport minister says his country "will not respond to the wishes" of the Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who has warned that Israel would intercept any such vessel.

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BEIRUT // Lebanon refuses to bow to Israel's warning against granting clearance to an all-women aid boat which plans to sail to blockaded Gaza this weekend, the transport minister said. "We will not respond to the wishes or requests of (Israeli Defence Minister Ehud) Barak, and what he says is of little relevance to us," Ghazi Aridi told AFP in a telephone interview. "We will continue to exercise our sovereignty and make the decisions we find appropriate." Barak warned last month Israel would intercept any ship nearing Gaza and said the Beirut government would be held responsible for allowing flotillas to depart from its shores for Gaza, which is run by the Islamist movement Hamas. Israel came under international censure over its May 31 seizure of a six-ship aid fleet bound for the Palestinian territory when Israeli commandos shot dead nine Turkish activists in a clash on the lead boat. The Mariam, a Bolivian-flagged cargo ship originally named Junia Star, plans to leave from northern Lebanon for Cyprus on Sunday at 7pm GMT on the first leg of a planned voyage to Gaza, organiser Samar al Hajj said. The vessel, renamed in honour of the Virgin Mary, plans to carry aid to Gaza in a bid to break the four-year siege of the Strip with more than 50 Lebanese and foreign women activists on board, including local pop star May Hariri. But Aridi told AFP that there was no guarantee the ship would set off on Sunday night as Cyprus had not yet granted the Mariam authorisation to dock or to depart for Gaza. The Cypriot government has said the island was keeping in place a ban on the sailing of ships from Cyprus to Gaza. The Naji al Ali, another Lebanese boat organised by journalists, has also announced it would sail to Gaza via Cyprus but has not yet received clearance from Lebanese authorities. Lebanon and Israel remain technically at war and have no diplomatic ties or maritime links. * Agence France-Presse