Israel Releases Seized Lebanese Aid Ship

The passengers and crew of a Lebanese aid ship seized by the Israeli navy as it sought to deliver aid to Gaza were expelled on Friday, while a senior Hamas official told Egyptian television late on Thursday that Israel had stopped linking the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit to the crippling blockade of the impoverished strip.

An Israeli army spokesman said no arms were found on board the Togolese-flagged ship, which was towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod on Thursday after it was shot at and intercepted as it headed towards Gaza in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade.

Passengers on the boat said they were beaten, blindfolded and handcuffed by Israeli soldiers who boarded the boat.

Ten of those who were on board were sent to Lebanon, while former Greek Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem, Monsignor Hilarion Capucci, 84, was sent to Syria and others were to be flown to London, radio reported.

A military official said humanitarian aid found on the ship would be transferred to the strip. Video footage released by the army showed boxes piled up in one corner of the ship and no weapons were found.

At the United Nations, Lebanese envoy Caroline Ziade called on the Security Council for international action to press Israel to release the ship immediately.

Arab League Ambassador Yahya Mahmassani condemned the "act of piracy" and said he had received assurances of U.N. efforts to get the ship returned.

Activists trying to help Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians have tried several times in past months to break the Israeli blockade. Some boats with peace activists were allowed to dock, others were attacked.
Truce and Shalit

Meanwhile, Hamas official, Ayman Taha, said Israel was no longer linking the release of Shalit, whom was captured more than two years ago, to any move to end its blockade of Gaza.

Israel has repeatedly said it will end the blockade, imposed after the Islamist movement Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, when Hamas releases Shalit.

Taha, who was in Cairo for truce talks with Egyptian mediators, said Israel had dropped a number of demands for a truce since both Hamas and Israel declared ceasefires on Jan. 18.

"Let me say what was proposed in the past and what is proposed now," he said. "It proposed the tying of Shalit with the issue of the passages, now it no longer proposes that."

Taha also said Israel was no longer demanding that Hamas sign a written agreement to end smuggling into Gaza.

Taha, who returned to Gaza on Thursday to consult with Hamas’s leadership, said Hamas "had no problem" with the idea of an 18-month truce proposed by Egypt.

But another delegation member, Salah al-Bardawil, said Hamas had reservations about Israeli restrictions on goods it would allow through its crossings with the impoverished Palestinian enclave.

Bardawil told Egyptian television that Israel was proposing to allow "between 70 and 80" percent of goods into Gaza, barring those it said could be used to make weapons.

Bardawil said Israel would allow the rest of the goods — which could include steel and concrete — into Gaza once "there is an exchange of prisoners with Shalit."

But Taha, in response to a question whether Israel would only partially lift the blockade until Shalit is released, said: "No, it is no longer tied."

( and Agencies)

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