Russia slams Britain over Syria-bound ship

June 21, 2012 - 2:28 PM

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's foreign minister lashed out at Britain on Thursday for pressuring a Russian-operated ship heading to Syria with a load of weapons to turn back, saying that Moscow won't abide by European Union sanctions against its Arab ally.

Sergey Lavrov said a British insurer's decision to remove the ship's coverage reflected the "unreliability of the British insurance system." He also said the British government defied international law by asking the insurance company to act.

"The EU sanctions aren't part of the international law," he said on nationally broadcast Ekho Moskvy radio.

Britain has joined the United States and other countries in pressing Russia to halt arms shipments to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Opposition groups say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.

The U.K.-based insurer Standard Club said it removed insurance coverage for the ship owner when it became aware it was carrying munitions, a clear breach of its rules. The move forced the ship, the MV Alaed, to turn back toward Russia.

"This is a very slipperly slope," Lavrov said in a separate interview with Russia Today television. "This means that anyone — any country or any company — who is not violating any international rules, who is not violating any U.N. Security Council resolutions, might be subject to extra-territorial application of somebody else's unilateral sanctions."

Russia, along with China, has twice shielded Syria from proposed international sanctions over Assad's crackdown on protests. It also has continued to provide Damascus, its last remaining Mideast ally, with weapons.

Lavrov told Ekho Moskvy radio the ship was carrying new air defense systems and three refurbished military helicopters to Syria, arguing the shipment was entirely legitimate.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich says the Curacao-registered ship is now heading to the Russian port of Murmansk where it would change its flag to the Russian. Lukashevich wouldn't say whether the vessel will then head back to Syria, but Lavrov seemed to hint at that by saying that "contracts must be fulfilled."

The ship is currently using the flag of Curacao, a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands with the Dutch monarch overseeing foreign affairs and defense.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a harsh reprimand to Russia last week, saying that Moscow "dramatically" escalated the crisis in Syria by sending attack helicopters there. The State Department acknowledged later the helicopters she accused Moscow of sending were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime.

Lavrov said the three helicopters carried by the ship had been supplied to Syria during Soviet times and refurbished under a 2008 contract.

"The claims that the Russians have sent helicopters to be used against protesters reflect a biased approach aimed at inciting tensions and casting Russia in bad light," he said. "We haven't violated anything, and we will fulfill our contract obligations."

He also criticized the EU for following a U.S. example in applying unilateral sanctions.

"Bad examples are contagious," he told Russia Today. "Now unfortunately the EU is taking the cue, beginning to use sanctions in a unilateral manner more and more against Syria, but also against some other cases."

The spat has added to tensions between Russia and the West over Syria.

Moscow has criticized Assad for heavy-handed use of force and slow reforms, but strongly resisted a Western demand for the Syrian strongman to step down.

"A scheme that envisages Assad stepping down as a condition for ending violence and launching a political process wouldn't work, because he won't step down," Lavrov said. "It's a serious geopolitical crisis that needs to be settled with some flexibility, not through ultimatums."

Lavrov warned that Western attempts to drive Assad out of power could result in Islamic radicals unleashing violence against more moderate Muslims and Christians in Syria.