Russian ship carrying arms to Syria reappears near Turkish port

A Russian ship suspected of delivering munitions to Syria in violation of an EU arms »»

A Russian ship suspected of delivering munitions to Syria in violation of an EU arms embargo after an unscheduled stop in Greek Cyprus has anchored off Turkey's coast, officials said Saturday.

Foreign Ministry official Selçuk Ünal said Turkish coast guard and customs officials would board the Chariot before allowing it to dock at the port of İskenderun.

Ünal said the ship left the Syrian port of Tartus early Saturday and reached İskenderun later the same day. He said the ship's captain confirmed that the ship had arrived from Syria. But it's unclear what type of cargo the St. Vincent and Grenadines-flagged ship may have offloaded at Tartus.

The Chariot initially made its way to the Greek Cypriot port of Limassol on Tuesday after running low on fuel because of rough seas. It's arrival at the European Union member country meant the vessel would be subject to the embargo the bloc imposed to protest Syria's crackdown on the uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule.

Customs officials inspecting the vessel found that it was carrying "dangerous cargo" inside four containers that Finance Minister Kikis Kazamias said was of a type that necessitated its seizure under EU embargo rules.

A Greek Cypriot official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the containers carried a shipment of bullets.

But Greek Cypriot authorities allowed it to leave Wednesday after the ship's owners, St. Petersburg-based Westberg Ltd., said it would head to Turkey instead of Syria.

The ship then vanished off radar screens after apparently switching off its Automatic Identification System, or AIS, that enables the vessel to be tracked.

Turkey, citing navy intelligence, said the ship made its way to Tartus after leaving Greek Cyprus.

US officials said Friday they had expressed concerns to both Russia and Greek Cyprus.

Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US was "continuing to seek clarification" about the ship and its cargo.

But Greek Cypriot administration spokesman Stefanos Stefanou on Saturday repeated that authorities "acted in accordance with EU regulations" and that no one from either the EU or elsewhere has raised any questions about the administration's handling of the matter.

Arms trafficking expert Hugh Griffiths said he has been monitoring the Chariot - a purpose-built ship to carry dangerous cargoes such as ammunition, explosives and missiles - which has a history of delivering arms to sensitive destinations in the Middle East and Africa.

He said ships switching off their AIS is "standard operating procedure" for ships involved in drugs trafficking and clandestine arms shipments.

Griffiths, who works for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said although the EU has an information-sharing system on suspect air cargo companies, no such mechanism exists to automatically alert other member states of suspicious ships.

He said this is especially important for countries like Greek Cyprus situated near busy shipping lanes near conflict zones.

"Had the Cypriot government known the profile of (this) vessel, its track record and the fact that destabilizing arms transfers are what it does, then they might not have been so willing to take the word of the ship's owner or captain," he told The Associated Press.

With foreknowledge of a suspicious ship, EU authorities would have been able to provide the kind of support that smaller countries with limited resources may need to properly handle such cases.

Last summer, Greek Cyprus experienced a disaster when 85 confiscated containers loaded with Iranian gunpowder exploded at a naval base, killing 13 people and knocking out the country's main power station.

The containers were seized in February 2009 from a Greek Cypriot-flagged ship that was suspected of transporting them from Iran to Palestinian militants in Gaza through Syria.

 

2012-01-14

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