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Arms ship's path raises concern about Russian support for Syria

Andreas Lazarou / AFP - Getty Images

The Saint Vincent-flagged Chariot cargo ship, said to be carrying tons of munitions from Russia to Syria, is released by the Cypriot authorities after receiving confirmation the vessel would not proceed to the Syrian port of Latakia as originally scheduled.

A Russian ship apparently laden with arms for Syria was under way again Wednesday after being detained in Cyprus, only now its destination is supposed to be Turkey.

The incident signals apparently signals Russia's continued military support for the Syrian regime, according to The Guardian newspaper of London. The regime is under a European Union embargo for President Bashar Assad's crackdown on an uprising that has left at least 5,000 dead over the past 10 months.

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

Russia and Turkey are not members of the European Union, so the route did not violate the embargo.

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."

The Guardian cited a Greek-language Politis newspaper report that the vessel carried ammunition of various calibers and that the recipient was the Syrian defense ministry. Another newspaper, Simerini, said initial reports suggested it was carrying 35 tons of explosives, weapons and munitions.

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

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. Cypriot authorities talked 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, a 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.

Russia is one Assad's few remaining international allies, the Guardian said. Moscow considers the embargo and U.S. sanctions as Western encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. Moscow continues to supply Damascus with advanced weapons and other arms, the Guardian said.

Syria gives Russia a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean.

Previous seizures
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 U.N. sanctions.

Turkish media said the aircraft was carrying light weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket launchers and mortars.

Last summer, Cyprus suffered a disaster involving confiscated munitions from 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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