JERUSALEM – The 50 tons of missiles, mortars and mines aboard a weapons-laden ship seized by Israel on Thursday were destined to wind up in Palestinian hands, the ship's captain has told Fox News.
In an exclusive jailhouse interview Monday, Col. Omar Akawi said the arms shipment he was transporting across the Red Sea was arranged by the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah, and that he took his orders to deliver from a senior member of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
Asked whether Arafat knew about the operation, Akawi shrugged his shoulders. "I know that [the weapons] have to go to Palestine," he said. "This is for the Palestinians."
Akawi's statement reinforces the accusations of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who on Sunday stood before row upon row of seized weapons and accused Arafat of plotting "the next wave of terror." Sharon said Arafat was directly involved in the $100 million arms shipment, accusing him of personally ordering the weapons from Iran and a ship from Lebanon to carry them.
The Palestinian leadership has denied any connection to the Iranian-made weapons or the ship. In a statement Sunday, the Palestinian leadership said it "condemns this operation and condemns the Israeli attempt to accuse the Palestinian Authority of being involved in this."
Akawi, 44, who was captured with his 12 crew members, told Fox News that he was an adviser for naval affairs in the Palestinian Authority's Transport Ministry and has been a member of Arafat's Fatah movement since 1976.
He said the smuggling operation was overseen by a Palestinian Authority official he identified as Adel Awadallah.
Akawi said that after Arafat's renewed call for a truce with Israel on Dec. 16, he expected his handlers to abort the mission. "That's when I was midway. I expected to receive an order to stop it," Akawi said. However, the captain said he was told by Awadallah to proceed.
During his tour of the boat on Sunday, Sharon was joined by senior Israeli security officials for a nationally televised event that emphasized the importance the government has placed on the weapons cache, laid out in neat rows at a naval yard in the Red Sea port of Eilat.
There were machine guns, mines, mortars, Katyusha rockets, grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and more than a half-million rounds of ammunition for various guns, all of which Israel says were on their way from Iran to the Gaza Strip.
Israeli commandoes stormed the Karine A Thursday in the Red Sea about 300 miles south of Eilat. While the pre-dawn raid occurred in international waters, no one has claimed ownership of the boat or its weapons.
Israel said most of the seized weapons were made in Iran and would have significantly boosted Palestinian firepower. Israel's Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the shipment was worth $100 million.
"The Palestinian Authority has been focusing all its efforts on terrorism and preparing the operational infrastructure for the next wave of terror," Sharon said.
A U.S. official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was possible the weapons were headed for Hezbollah or Hamas, the extremist Palestinian movement.
A Hezbollah official in Beirut, Lebanon, denied any member of the guerrilla group was on board the ship. He declined to say whether any of the weapons were intended for the movement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.