, JERUSALEM, Jul 14 – Israeli warships warily shadowed a Libyan aid ship on Wednesday amid confusion about whether the vessel is heading for blockaded Gaza or a nearby Egyptian port.
The standoff comes amid high tensions just six weeks after Israeli commandos launched a pre-dawn operation to prevent a flotilla of aid ships from breaching its blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory, leaving nine people dead.
"Eight Israeli warships are surrounding the Libyan aid ship for Gaza and preventing the continuation of its journey," Yussef Sawan, the executive director of the Gaddafi Foundation which chartered the vessel, told AFP early Wednesday.
The charity is run by Seif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Sawan said earlier that the Israeli warships were "threatening" the cargo ship, the Amalthea, which he said was still headed for Gaza, denying a statement by an Egyptian security official that it was expected to arrive in the Egyptian border port of El-Arish on Wednesday.
"The ship is still headed for Gaza and will not change course," Sawan told AFP. Communications with the ship are being jammed, he added.
He also confirmed that the ship had engine trouble.
"Because of a malfunction, the cargo ship was moving slowly but now it has stopped. The Israeli navy is preventing us from moving," said Sawan.
But a spokeswoman for the Israeli military denied that the cargo ship was surrounded by warships.
"There are no new developments, everything is normal," she added.
An Israeli military spokesman told AFP earlier that the navy had "begun preparations for stopping the ship, should it attempt to violate the naval blockade" of Gaza.
The last time Israel tried to stop Gaza aid ships the resulting skirmishes left nine Turks, including a dual US national, dead while dozens of other people were injured, including nine Israeli commandos.
After the Israeli navy established contact with the Amalthea its Cuban captain announced he would sail to El-Arish, an Israeli official told AFP.
Public radio broadcast snippets of radio conversation in Spanish, which it said was between the captain of the Amalthea and the navy on the new course he was charting.
However, Israeli warships continued to closely monitor the ship, fearing the move was a ruse, the official said.
Close to midnight, public radio, which has been monitoring transmissions between the ship and the navy, reported that the vessel had anchored at sea with engine trouble.
Mashallah Zwei, a member of the Gaddafi Foundation, said the navy had "threatened to send their warships to intercept the boat and escort it toward the (southern Israeli) port of Ashdod if we do not change course.
"We explained to the Israeli authorities that our original destination was Gaza and that we are not here for a provocation," he said.
"We also specified that we are transporting only foodstuffs and medicines and we asked them to let us discharge our cargo in Gaza."
The 92-metre (302-foot) freighter had left Greece on Saturday and was expected to arrive off Gaza\’s territorial waters on Wednesday, said the charity.
The Amalthea\’s shipping company said the vessel had a crew of 12 from various countries as well as six passengers from Libya, one from Nigeria, one from Morocco and one from Algeria.
The latest developments came a day after Israel\’s military published the results of an internal inquiry into the May 31 raid, which found that while mistakes had been made, the troops\’ use of live fire was "justified".
The report also made a point of saying no country in the world had ever managed "to stop a vessel at sea in a non-hostile manner".
Over the past week, Israel has made a flurry of diplomatic efforts to try to convince the organisers to change course and deliver the Amalthea\’s cargo of 2,000 tonnes of foodstuffs and medicine to El-Arish, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Gaza.
As well as the use of diplomatic channels, pressure had been exerted on the Amalthea\’s owner and its captain to change course, the Gaddafi Foundation said.
Global pressure over the May 31 debacle forced Israel to significantly change its policy on Gaza, and now it prevents only the import of arms and goods it says could be used to build weapons or fortifications.