Libyan aid ship captain asks to dock in Egypt

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Hamas in Gaza, urges for more "freedom flotillas" to breach the blockade.

A Palestinian youth holds posters of the Libyan leader, Muammar Qadafi, and the leader's son Seif al Islam during a rally in support of the Libyan aid ship threatening to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
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TEL AVIV // Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Hamas in Gaza, urged the activists aboard the Libyan-chartered ship yesterday to persist in their quest to reach the seaside territory and called for more "freedom flotillas" to make such attempts. "The sea and land convoys must continue. We hope we can depend on Islamic nations to help us lift the blockade," he said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Last night the ship was 25km off the coast of Egypt and the captain was reported to have asked for permission to dock at the Egyptian port of al Arish. The freighter had stalled overnight in international waters about 130km from Gaza, its every movement watched by a fleet of Israeli warships that was hovering within visual range of the vessel. Israel's public radio reported that during radio transmissions between the ship and the navy, the captain reported engine trouble. According to the radio's report, the Israeli navy contacted the captain every time there was an unusual movement on the deck.

Youssef Sawani, executive director of the Tripoli-based Gaddafi Foundation, which arranged the ship's voyage, confirmed that the ship had an engine malfunction but accused Israel of hindering it from making any progress on its trip. He told news agencies: "Eight Israeli warships are surrounding the Libyan aid ship for Gaza and preventing the continuation of its journey." The 92-metre freighter, which carried a Moldovan flag and left Greece on Saturday, was carrying about 2,000 tonnes of humanitarian supplies such as medicines and foodstuffs.

Its key backer was the Gaddafi Foundation, a charity headed by Seif al Islam Qadafi, the second son - and the likely heir apparent - of Libyan leader Muammar Qadafi. Washington, which had pressed Israel to ease its restrictions on Gaza, has closely watched the developments with the Libyan ship and late Tuesday urged both sides to act with caution. Philip Crowley, a state department spokesman, said: "We have urged the Libyan government to avoid any unnecessary confrontation," and called for the aid vessel to deliver its supplies "through established channels".

The Libyan ship is unlikely to become the last show of international demonstration against Israel's crippling three-year-old blockade of Gaza's waters, air space and land crossings. Also yesterday, Greek protesters against Israel's Gaza siege blocked five check-in counters of Israel's flagship El Al airline at the Athens International Airport, delaying an Israel-bound flight for about two hours. Giorgos Pontikos, a spokesman for the Communist-backed labour union that organised the rally, said: "This was an action taken in solidarity with the Palestinian people and their effort to establish a Palestinian state."

Furthermore, Al Jazeera reported that a convoy of 150 people, including journalists and academics, is travelling overland in 25 vehicles from Jordan to Egypt's Rafah crossing with Gaza. Israel's predominantly right-wing parliament late on Tuesday voted to remove some of the privileges of Hanin Zoabi, a Palestinian Israeli legislator who was on board one of the six ships that were part of the flotilla raided by Israel on May 31 - though not on the vessel in which the bloodshed took place. Ms Zoabi had her diplomatic passport confiscated and her ability to travel abroad restricted and will not be able to have her legal fees covered by the parliament in case she faces trial.

An Israeli commentator from the Haaretz newspaper yesterday called the parliamentary decision a "dangerous precedent" to freedom of expression and democracy in Israel. Ms Zoabi, speaking after the vote, said: "It is no wonder that a state which denies a million Arab citizens their basic rights is also revoking the rights of a parliamentary member who loyally represents her electorate."