JERUSALEM: A Libyan aid ship resumed its voyage on Wednesday after stalling overnight, with the organizers 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 Al-Arish, an Egyptian port some 50 kilometers to the west.
"It’s moving and getting closer to Al-Arish," an Israeli military spokesman told AFP, without specifying exactly where it was. "We are preparing for a scenario in which it tries to redirect and go to Gaza."
Maritime tracking websites showed the Amalthea cargo ship moving very slowly just off the Egyptian coast, about 15 nautical miles from Al-Arish.
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 Al-Arish instead of at the port in Gaza," he told the official MENA news agency, without saying when the request was made.
MENA cited an unidentified security official as saying that Egyptian authorities and the Red Crescent medical service were "making preparations" to receive the Moldovan-flagged Almathea at Al-Arish. However, the port’s chief, Gamal Abdel Maqsoud, said there had been no communication so far with the ship.
An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the ship’s course, confirmed to the Associated Press that the vessel was headed toward Al-Arish.
According to the Associated Press, the ship was still crawling in international waters off Gaza by mid-afternoon Wednesday and could not be contacted for confirmation.
With the vessel’s organizers insisting it would go to Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israel saying it would not allow that to happen, the stage appeared set for a showdown on the high seas. Framing the faceoff was a deadly Israeli naval raid of another blockade-busting ship in May.
An Al-Jazeera reporter on board the Almathea said two Israeli missile boats were hewing close to its left side to prevent it from veering to Gaza. Al-Arish was on the ship’s right.
Conflicting messages on Tuesday created confusion over whether the Amalthea intended to try to run the blockade or not.
Israeli military officials said the ship’s captain informed Israel he was heading for the Egyptian port, but a spokesman for the Libyan mission insisted the ship still intended to try to reach the Palestinian territory. He said, however, they wouldn’t violently resist any efforts to stop them.
On Wednesday, 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 Qaddafi 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 Al-Arish. "If not, they have threatened to resort to force."
The foundation said four warships were on either side of the vessel, "trying to force it to change destination."
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 Amalthea developed engine trouble overnight and stalled at a spot in international waters 60 nautical miles from Al-Arish and 80 from Gaza, the military said.
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 tons of foodstuffs and medicine, has been charted by a charity run by Seif Al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Moamer Qaddafi.
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.
The 92-meter (302-foot) freighter had left Greece on Saturday carrying a crew of 12, along with nine passengers — six Libyans, a Nigerian, a Moroccan and an Algerian, the shipping agent said.