Greek Cyprus allows arms shipment to dock in Syria despite EU embargo
Cameramen shoot on the coast at Limassol Port, Cyprus, 11 January 2012. A ship carrying weapons bound for the Syrian port of Latakia was intercepted in Cyprus, a Lebanese radio reported 11 January. (Photo: EPA)
A Russian ship loaded with 60 tons of ammunition and arms landed in Syria on Thursday morning after it was intercepted by the Greek Cypriot administration for an inspection. The ship was allowed to go when Greek Cypriot authorities were promised that the ship would travel to Turkey instead of Syria.
The Russian vessel that left the Russian port on Dec. 9 was seized by Greek Cypriot administration when the ship anchored off Limassol on Tuesday because of high seas, the AP reported, on grounds that the ship was carrying “dangerous cargo” that would be in violation of an EU embargo on arms shipments to Syria.
After the ship's Russian owners promised Greek Cypriot authorities that they would change the destination of the ship, the ship was let go from the Limassol port -- not to Turkey, as Greek Cypriot officials alleged -- but directly to the initial destination in Syria, authorities with first-hand knowledge of the ship's fate told Today's Zaman on Thursday.
Greek Cypriot Finance Minister Kikis Kazamias was quoted by the AP as telling a private television that the cargo had a load that necessitated its seizure. "From the moment that we were informed that the cargo aboard the ship would not go to Syria, we had no reason to prevent [the ship's] immediate release," Kazamias said. "All actions were taken allowing us to properly get rid of this ship with the dangerous cargo," he added.
After the Greek Cypriot administration let the ship go it landed at the Syrian coastal province of Tartus, slightly after 10:50 a.m. Thursday morning, sources informed. It was also clarified that the ship would not have been allowed in Turkey even if it had steered for the country, since Turkey does not recognize Greek Cyprus and refuses to accept vehicles that come from Greek Cypriot ports, or any vehicle whose last stop was in a Greek Cypriot port.
The St. Vincent and the Grenadines-flagged ship was allowed to refuel and leave the EU member country on Wednesday, clearly violating an EU sanction on Syria imposed to combat the Assad regime's bloody crackdown on uprisings in Syria.
Turkey is not an EU member nation but has been blocking shipments of arms to Syria for months. Greek Cyprus is readying to assume its position in the EU rotating presidency in less than six months.
When the ship that docked off the Greek Cypriot port drew the attention of authorities, customs officials boarded to examine the cargo, due to suspicions regarding the contents of the shipment. However, “actual examination of the contents of the containers was not possible due to the narrow confines of the ship,” a written statement issued by Greek Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday. “It was concluded that the ship carried dangerous cargo and was destined for Syria and Turkey,” the statement added.
The munitions on the ship were owned by Russia’s state arms trader Rosoboronexport, and the ship’s manifest said the cargo was listed as dangerous. Greek Cyprus lost its main power station last summer when contents of cargo it confiscated from a ship headed for Gaza blew up, killing 13 people and triggering a wave of resignations in the Greek Cypriot administration in a move that shook the government to its roots. The AP reported that the cargo, gunpowder-laden containers, was confiscated in February 2009 and was left piled in an open field at a naval base until the explosion in July.
Meanwhile, Turkey on Tuesday intercepted trucks suspected of carrying military equipment from Iran to Syria, the governor of Kilis explained. Diplomatic sources also confirmed that the load was seized on suspicion that it might be of the sort that is prohibited under Turkey’s embargo on Syria, but no conclusive result has been reached yet and Ankara is looking into it. The trucks are waiting in Turkey.
“The four trucks were confiscated by customs. They are alleged to be carrying military equipment,” Governor Yusuf Odabaş said. He added that experts were being sent from Ankara to examine the cargo. Turkey intercepted another arms shipment to Syria from Iran back in August in violation of a UN embargo against the country.
Turkey followed-up on its sanctions on Syria in November, severing ties between Syria and Turkey to urge the Assad regime to halt the bloodshed in the country and take up reforms. Turkey also remains at odds with the EU for its block on free movement of goods inside the EU due to the country’s refusal to allow ships that dock in Greek Cyprus, or whose original departure is from a Greek Cypriot port. Cargo cannot be diverted to Turkey under any circumstances, and Greek Cypriots know this well, sources claimed.
Syria’s membership in the Arab League was also suspended a few weeks later, when Bashar al-Assad refused to withdraw the army from Syrian cities and stop the killings, prompting the league to engage in talks with Syria’s divided but growing opposition. Turkey has also been home to the Syrian opposition since the Syrian National Council decided to gather in İstanbul. Turkey’s southeastern city of Hatay, on the border with Syria, is home to thousands of Syrians who fled violence at the hands of the Assad regime.