Two Iranian warships have begun crossing the Suez Canal as Israel stressed its objection to their planned voyage to Syria.
The ships entered the canal early Tuesday after the approval of Egypt’s Defense Ministry, the state-run Middle East News Agency cited Ahmed El Manakhly, head of traffic at the Suez Canal Authority, as saying. The crossing usually takes 10 to 12 hours, El Manakhly said.
The passage through the strategic waterway marks the first time since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution that Iranian military ships have traveled the route from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
The frigate and supply ship had been due to enter the canal at 6 a.m. on Monday with the northbound convoy that moves daily, but had been delayed by stormy weather off the coast of Syria.
Canal officials said Monday that the ships, a frigate and a supply vessel en route to Syria for a training mission, were close to the southern entrance of the canal.
Canal officials say the ships are expected to pay a fee of $290,000 for the crossing, according to the Associated Press. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Israel is following the movement of the warships closely, although it does not believe the Iranian vessels have hostile intentions toward Israel, Haaretz reported Monday, adding that the ships were apparently not carrying any unconventional cargo.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week called the planned crossing of the canal "another provocation" by Iran against Israel.
However, according to Haaretz, Israel believed the Egyptians had no choice but to allow the ships to pass through the Suez Canal, because of a treaty obliging it to allow free passage through the waterway. During recently ousted President Hosni Mubarak's regime, the Iranians refrained from such a move due to opposition from Cairo.
A Lebanese official reportedly said shipping agents had informed Egyptian authorities that the vessels were unlikely to reach the Mediterranean Sea until Wednesday at the earliest, two days later than scheduled.
"The stormy weather prevailing near the Lebanese and Syrian coast is part of the reason for the delay," the official told the German Press Agency, dpa.
Lebanese coast guards were monitoring the stretch of sea between the Suez Canal and Syria, where the ships are believed to be heading.