Russian ship stopped carrying arms bound for Syria

January 11, 2012 - 8:06 AM

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A Russian ship that made an unscheduled stop in Cyprus while carrying tons of arms to Syria was technically violating an EU embargo on such shipments. But the vessel was allowed to continue its journey Wednesday after changing its destination, Cypriot officials said.

The cargo ship, owned by St. Petersburg-based Westberg Ltd., left that Russian port on Dec. 9 for Turkey and Syria, which is 65 miles (105 kilometers) east of Cyprus, the officials said.

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

But 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 the four containers 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."

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

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

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.

Turkey, which had once cultivated close ties with Syria, 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. Some 7,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey.

Last summer, Cyprus suffered a disaster when it confiscated munitions aboard another cargo ship heading to the Middle East.

In February 2009, officials seized 85 gunpowder-laden containers from a Cypriot-flagged ship that was suspected of transporting them from Iran to Palestinian militants in Gaza through Syria.

Those containers, left piled in an open field at a naval base, blew up in July, killing 13 people and wrecking the island's main power station in the island's worst peacetime military accident.

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AP writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.