January 13, 2012 / 3:02 PM / 7 years ago

Russian-operated "arms" ship reaches Syria

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian-operated ship with “a dangerous cargo” has reached conflict-torn Syria, a source at the vessel’s St Petersburg-based firm said on Friday, after being temporarily halted during a refuelling stop in Cyprus.

The source declined to comment on Russian and Cypriot media reports that the ship Chariot, which set sail from St. Petersburg on December 9, was carrying cargo from Russia’s state weapons exporter Rosoboronexport. The Cyprus newspaper Politis reported the ship was carrying 60 tonnes of ammunition.

Russia has long been a major arms supplier to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has been trying to crush a 10-month-old wave of unrest by lethal armed force, raising an international outcry and triggering Western and Arab sanctions against Damascus that Moscow has refused to join.

“The ship was carrying a dangerous cargo,” the source at St. Petersburg-based Westberg Ltd. said by telephone on condition of anonymity. “It reached Syria on January 11th,” he said.

Rosoboronexport spokesman Vyacheslav Davidenko said on Friday the arms exporter would neither confirm nor deny the report. “We do not comment on where our deliveries go, when they leave port or how.”

A Turkish foreign ministry official on Friday confirmed that the ship had reached Syria.

“As of 10.15 a.m. (0815 GMT) yesterday the Turkish navy checked and confirmed that the ship in question was docked at the Syrian port of Tartus,” ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said.

Russia has voiced strong opposition to arms embargoes and has repeatedly promised to uphold arms contracts with Damascus, one of its top weapons customers, despite increasing international pressure.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called weapons embargoes against Syria “dishonest”, suggesting that in practice they cut off military supplies to the government while allowing opposition forces to attain arms from abroad at will.

An unnamed military source was quoted as saying in December that Russia had delivered anti-ship Yakhont missiles to Syria.

Syria accounted for 7 percent of Russia’s total of $10 billion in arms deliveries abroad in 2010, according to the Russian defence think tank CAST.

RUSSIA’S NAVAL BASE

Cypriot media had said on Wednesday that the Mediterranean island state’s authorities had intercepted a cargo of ammunition bound for Syria for checks after the ship carrying it put into the port of Limassol for refuelling.

Cypriot officials said that the vessel had been allowed to sail onwards after promising to change its destination.

The European Union said on Friday that it was aware of the case and that national authorities were responsible for making sure an EU arms embargo is upheld.

“We are instrumental in putting these measures in place but it’s up to the national authorities to make sure they are implemented and as far as I’m aware the authorities in this case are confident that the embargo has not been broken,” said Michael Mann, spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs.

The Westberg official said the company had done nothing wrong as no Russian law prevented the delivery from being made at Tartus port, where Russia maintains a naval base.

“The ship went to Syria as there was nothing illegal in reaching its originally intended destination,” he said.

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