Arms Find Escalates Mideast Tension

JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian Authority said Tuesday it will question government officials accused by Israel of trying to smuggle Iranian arms, while an Israeli Cabinet minister criticized the United States for its muted response to the affair.

Israel has accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of being directly involved in an arms shipment captured last week in the Red Sea. Israel says the large operation, involving an attempt to smuggle millions of dollars' worth of rockets and anti-tank missiles, could not have taken place without Arafat's approval.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that if the Palestinians had obtained the weapons, it would have put the country "in an impossible situation where all of Israel becomes hostage to Yasser Arafat."

Sharon said security talks between the two sides could continue, but he opposed any resumption of the peace talks that broke down a year ago.

The Palestinian Authority confirmed that the captain of the ship carrying the arms is an official in its naval unit, but denied links to the shipment.

"The Palestinian Authority is not interested and does not want any form of escalation in this situation," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told a news conference.

Abed Rabbo said those accused of involvement would be questioned by a four-member committee of senior security officials. The captain of the freighter has said he received his instructions from Adel Awadallah, also known as Adel Mughrabi, and identified by Israel as a major weapons buyer in the Palestinian Authority.

The U.S. State Department said Monday it was still looking into the affair and did not know who hired the ship and who the recipient of the weapons was to be.

Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said Washington was deliberately taking a low-key approach in order not to encourage Israeli retaliation against the Palestinians and to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with Iran.

"It appears that the problem is that those who are hearing our words are not willing to admit the full significance," Sneh told Israel Army Radio on Tuesday. "If you ask yourself to what destination a ship will be headed if its captain is a senior official of the Palestinian Authority and there are other people on board who also belong to the authority, any reasonable person knows where it was bound."

The Karine A was captured last week by Israeli naval commandoes some 500 kilometers from Israel in the Red Sea. No one has claimed ownership of the vessel or the weapons.

The captain, Omar Akawi, said in jailhouse interviews that he picked up the weapons at Iran's Qeys island, just off the country's southwest coast.

Israel says the weapons shipment included 62 Katyusha rockets with a range of 20 kilometers, 2.2 tons of explosives, anti-tank missiles and 698,000 rounds of ammunition.