Five Gunboats, Embargoed by French, Speeding Across Mediterranean to Haifa

A Defense Ministry spokesman said today that he knew nothing of five French-built gunboats reportedly speeding across the Mediterranean manned by Israeli crews. The 40-knot Diesel-powered craft were built for the Israel Navy in France but were “frozen” by the French arms embargo against Israel. The spokesman said the only information he had was from foreign news agency reports.

There were “smiles all around in Israel.” The London Sunday Express reported today, as the news of the gunboat coup got around. The paper noted that there was no official comment on the incident but that “people in the streets of Tel Aviv were congratulating themselves on having ‘pulled a fast one on the French.’”

The paper reported that the five gunboats, now moving eastward in the Mediterranean, were probably heading for a refueling rendezvous with a tanker. It said that “it looks as though the Israelis have pulled off a cheeky coup in their campaign to keep their armed forces fully equipped with the latest weapons.”

The five boats slipped out of Cherbourg on Dec. 25 after they were allegedly sold to a Norwegian firm for oil research in the North Sea. They were said to be flying the Norwegian flag and to be officered by Norwegian merchant mariners with Israeli crews. The boats were reported to have passed through the Straits of Gibraltar Saturday, headed eastward, flying no flag.

ISRAELI NAVAL CONCENTRATION IS REPORTED OFF SICILY

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported from Rome Sunday that Italian Navy sources at Palermo said there was “an unusual number” of Israeli naval units at present in the Mediterranean between Sardinia and Sicily. Italian coastal stations have picked up numerous signals exchanged between Israeli ships. The strength of the radio signals being received in Sicily, the Italian sources said, confirmed the presence of the ships in that area. British naval sources predicted that the gunboats would reach Haifa harbor by Thursday.

Wire service reports quoted Israeli Embassy sources in Paris as saying that the boats, which cost $1 million apiece, had been sold to a Norwegian firm and that the Israeli crews aboard them were “loaned” to the new owners. “Apart from that, it has nothing more to do with us. We have got our money back and the matter is now between the French and the new owners,” the Embassy spokesman is reported to have said.

But Norwegian authorities in Oslo and Paris denied that Norwegian nationals had purchased the boats. They said there was no record of an import license having been applied for and that the craft would be seized if they entered Norwegian waters. A Norwegian Government spokesman said today he was sure the boats were not flying the Norwegian flag.

The mystery deepened when the French Defense Ministry said Saturday that the boats had been sold by Israel to the firm of Star boat & Weill, S.A., of Oslo. No such firm could be located in the Norwegian capital. According to the French, its headquarters was in Panama. But a Panamanian law firm identified by the French Defense Ministry as being connected with the gunboat purchase claimed it was only the resident agent for the purchasers and could give no further information.

FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER ORDERS FULL-SCALE INQUIRY INTO AFFAIR

In Paris today, Foreign Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas ordered a full-scale inquiry into the gunboat affair. Former Information Minister Louis Terrenoire, president of the Franco-Arab Friendship Association, filed questions for the Prime Minister in the National Assembly on the circumstances surrounding the departure of the gunboats.

The five gunboats were the last of a class of 12 such vessels ordered by Israel in 1966. They were designed to carry the Israel-made sea-to-sea “Gabriel” missile. Seven of the boats were delivered before June, 1967 when former President Charles de Gaulle charged Israel with aggression and imposed an arms embargo ostensibly on all belligerents in the Six-Day War. The remaining five boats were held in Cherbourg as they were completed although all 12 were paid for in full by Israel. The last of the class, christened Eilat, was launched only two weeks ago. Israeli naval crews and technicians had been living in Cherbourg for months, ready to take over the boats if the French lifted the embargo. But no such move was made by the French Government.

According to reports from Cherbourg, the boats’ departure was cleared by French customs and port authorities just before Christmas. Their sailing was delayed by rough weather. But the boats slipped out of port after dark on Christmas day. The port captain said he did not see them leave apparently because they showed no navigational lights. Their departure was not reported officially.

HINT FRENCH SECRETLY ACQUIESCED IN ESCAPE OF GUNBOATS FROM CHERBOURG

Some diplomatic circles abroad implied today that the French permitted the gunboats to be taken over by Israel, using the Norwegian firm as a “blind.” They said the French want to dispose of the feeling that they are discriminating against Israel although they are not prepared to incense the Arab world by lifting the arms embargo. These sources said the French may have made the gesture toward Israel in order to go ahead with an alleged $400 million arms sale to Libya, a deal which reportedly includes 50 Mirage jets. The 50 Mirages that Israel bought and paid for two years ago are still under embargo.

Some diplomatic sources abroad claimed that the French, taking note of the fiasco at the Rabat Arab summit conference last week, were leaving an escape hatch open to avoid complete identification with the Arab cause. There is a group of pro-Israel Gaullist deputies in Paris pressing for a French reconciliation with Israel.

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