JERUSALEM (AP) In a prison interview, the Palestinian naval captain captured by Israeli commandos with 50 tons of weapons on his ship said yesterday that he”s a longtime member of Yasser Arafat”s Fatah movement who undertook the risky operation to help the outgunned Palestinians defend themselves.

“I”m a soldier. I obeyed orders,” said Omar Akawi, adding that he picked up the rockets, mortars and anti-tank missiles off Iran”s coast in the Persian Gulf and that they were headed for Palestinian-controlled Gaza.

Akawi, captured Thursday along with 12 crewmen in the Red Sea, said he works in the Palestinian Transportation Ministry and received his instructions from an official in the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian leadership yesterday confirmed Akawi was a mid-ranking member of its naval unit, but continued to insist it had nothing to do with the weapons shipment.

“It”s a kind of propaganda unfortunately. It”s a false way to undermine the peace process,” said Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian parliament speaker.

However, following a meeting between Arafat and the European Union”s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, the Palestinian Authority said it would form a committee to investigate the ship and its cargo. The committee would report its findings to the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. No further details were immediately available.

“Arafat informed Solana that all those discovered to have any connection with the issue will be questioned and punished,” said Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

The Israeli public, despondent after 15 months of violence, has embraced the ship”s seizure on the high seas as a throwback to past military victories while officials used it to lambast Arafat, insisting any smuggling effort of this magnitude had to be approved at the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority.

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