Fri, Jan 13, 2012 - Page 6 News List

Russia ship with weapons for Syria released by Cyprus


A Russian ship that made an unscheduled stop in Cyprus while carrying tonnes of arms to Syria was technically violating an EU embargo on such shipments, Cypriot officials said.

However, the vessel was allowed to continue its journey on Wednesday after changing its destination.

The cargo ship, owned by St Petersburg-based Westberg Ltd, left the Russian port on Dec. 9 for Turkey and Syria, which is 105km east of Cyprus, the officials said.

Russia and Turkey are not members of the EU, so such a route would not have violated the embargo the bloc imposed to protest Syria’s crackdown on the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rule.

However, the Chariot, a St Vincent and Grenadines-flagged ship, dropped anchor off the southern Cypriot port of Limassol on Tuesday because of high seas, drawing the attention of Cypriot officials.

Customs officials boarded the ship to examine its cargo, but couldn’t open and inspect four containers in the hold because of “the confined space” they were stored in, the Cypriot foreign ministry said in a statement.

Nevertheless, the officials determined they were holding a “dangerous cargo.”

Cypriot Minister of Finance Kikis Kazamias told private Sigma TV that the cargo was of a type that “essentially necessitated its seizure.”

State radio in Cyprus went further, saying the vessel was carrying “tens of tons of munitions.”

The ship was also carrying an electricity generator, the foreign ministry said.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted a Westberg spokesman as saying that the Chariot was ferrying cargo owned by Russia’s state arms trader Rosoboronexport. The spokesman said the cargo was listed as “dangerous” in the ship’s manifest, but no further details about it were available.

Cypriot authorities consulted with the ship’s Russian owners who promised to change the ship’s route, and the vessel was allowed to refuel and leave Cyprus on Wednesday, the statement said.

“From the moment that we were informed that the cargo aboard the ship won’t go to Syria, then we had no reason not to allow [the ship’s] immediate release,” Kazamias said. “All actions were taken allowing us to properly get rid of this ship with the dangerous cargo.”

The statement didn’t say where the vessel is now headed, but an official with knowledge of the matter said the ship was allowed to leave after saying its final destination will be nearby Turkey.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity, given the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

However, Turkish officials couldn’t confirm that the Chariot was heading to Turkey, and the vessel could still make a dash for the Syrian ports of Latakia or Tartus, which Russian warships use as a resupply stop.

Turkey had previously cultivated close ties with Syria, but is now one of the Assad regime’s most vociferous critics. Turkey has imposed trade sanctions on Syria and is allowing its opposition groups to meet on its territory. About 7,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey.

Turkish authorities intercepted an arms shipment from Iran to Syria in August and seized the cargo of a Syria-bound Iranian plane in March, because it breached UN sanctions.

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