, JERUSALEM, Jul 14 – A Libyan aid ship resumed its voyage on Wednesday after stalling overnight, with the organisers insisting it was on course for Gaza and defying calls by the Israeli navy to dock in Egypt.
But it was not clear if the freighter was actually heading for the Gaza Strip in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade, or whether it was instead going to El-Arish, an Egyptian port some 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the west.
Shortly after the vessel began moving, Israeli public radio, which is monitoring the exchanges between the navy and the crew, reported that the ship\’s Cuban captain was ignoring repeated calls in English and Spanish to state his destination.
The Libyan charity which chartered the Amalthea insisted the boat was still heading for Gaza.
"The ship has resumed its journey but the going is difficult," Yussef Sawan, head of the Kadhafi Foundation, told AFP.
"Israeli naval boats are trying to block its course and divert it from the Gaza coast," he said, adding that the boat was "about three hours from Gaza."
Sawan said the Israelis had given the boat the choice of either turning back or heading to El-Arish. "If not, they have threatened to resort to force."
But the Israeli military said the Amalthea appeared to be heading for El-Arish.
"Currently the Libyan ship is headed in the direction of El-Arish port in Egypt," the military said in a statement posted on Twitter.
And a senior Egypt official said that the Amalthea had requested permission to dock there.
"Egypt has agreed to a request from the Libyan aid boat to drop anchor at the port of El-Arish instead of at the port in Gaza," he told the official MENA news agency, without saying when the request was made.
"The Egyptian authorities and the Red Crescent are preparing to welcome the boat which is expected later in the day."
The Amalthea developed engine trouble overnight and stalled at a spot in international waters 60 nautical miles from El-Arish and 80 from Gaza, the military said.
In Tripoli, Sawan confirmed the vessel had had engine trouble and blamed its lack of progress on the Israeli navy, saying that eight warhsips had surrounded the vessel.
Public radio said the Israeli boats were within sight of the vessel, and were contacting the captain with questions every time there was suspicious movement on deck.
The ship, which is carrying a cargo of 2,000 tonnes of foodstuffs and medicine, has been charted by a charity run by Seif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
Speaking to the Maariv daily, a senior military official said naval forces were not expecting any problems from those on board but they were prepared to respond if it became necessary.
"We do not expect any resistance," he said. "But if our soldiers do encounter problems, they will not hesitate to use force."
The last time Israel tried to stop Gaza aid ships, the resulting skirmishes killed nine Turks, including one with joint US citizenship, while dozens of other people were wounded, including nine Israeli commandos.
On Tuesday, Washington urged both parties to act with caution.
"We have urged the Libyan government to avoid any unnecessary confrontation," said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, calling on all sides "to act responsibly" in meeting Gaza\’s needs.
The 92-metre (302-foot) freighter had left Greece on Saturday carrying a crew of 12 people of various nationalities, along with nine passengers — six Libyans, a Nigerian, a Moroccan and an Algerian, the shipping agent said.
Earlier this week, the Israeli military published the results of an internal inquiry into the deadly May 31 raid, which found that while mistakes had been made, the troops\’ use of live fire was "justified".
And Israel again defended its actions during a hearing of the UN Human Rights Committee on Wednesday.
"No ship can breach this blockade, be they civil or military ships. Whoever violates the blockade is heading for retaliation," Israeli envoy Sari Rubenstein told the committee.
International pressure over the May raid prompted 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.
But it has said the naval blockade will remain in place to prevent the Islamist Hamas movement which controls the territory from bringing in rockets or other heavy weapons by sea.