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Originally published Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 6:09 AM

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UK: 'Arms' ship for Syria heading back to Russia

A Russian-operated ship said to be carrying military helicopters to Syria appears to have turned back after its British insurer removed coverage for the vessel, U.K. officials said Tuesday.

Associated Press

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LONDON —

A Russian-operated ship said to be carrying military helicopters to Syria appears to have turned back after its British insurer removed coverage for the vessel, U.K. officials said Tuesday.

Britain's Foreign Office said the ship, the MV Alaed, changed course in Europe after news reports emerged about its alleged contents. Earlier, the Foreign Office confirmed it was aware that a ship carrying a consignment of refurbished Russian-made attack helicopters was heading to Syria.

The ship has "turned back now apparently toward Russia," Foreign Secretary William Hague told British lawmakers in Parliament. The vessel appeared to have been avoiding UK territorial waters and EU territorial waters, his ministry added.

"It is good news that the shipment of attack helicopters we've been tracking in the North Sea in recent days is heading away from Syria," British Prime Minister David Cameron said during the G-20 summit in Mexico on Tuesday. "But we will continue to work to stem the flow of weapons."

The news came after 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 BBC reported Tuesday that the ship was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. The Foreign Office said it was heading toward the Netherlands when it changed course to avoid Dutch territorial waters and turned north.

Russian officials have not commented on the ship or its reported contents. The vessel's Russian operator, Femco, refused to comment Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the G-20 summit that only the Syrian people have the right to decide whether their president, Bashar Assad, steps down.

Putin said Tuesday that not all Syrians want a change in leadership and that all parties need to negotiate a solution to end the bloodshed.

Britain has joined the United States and other countries in pressing Russia to halt arms shipments to Assad's regime. Opposition groups say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests. A ferocious government crackdown, however, led many to take up arms and the conflict is now an armed insurgency.

Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East, and has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons industries for the last four decades, acquiring billions of dollars' worth of combat jets, helicopters, missiles, armored vehicles and other military gear. Russia has also shielded Assad's regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown.

The Foreign Office said Hague has told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that all defense shipments to Syria must stop.

"We are working closely with international partners to ensure that we are doing all we can to stop the Syrian regime's ability to slaughter civilians being reinforced through assistance from other countries," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

President Barack Obama said at the G-20 that China and Russia were "not aligned" with the U.S. and other nations on Syria but said both countries' leaders recognize the dangers of a civil war.

Obama met with Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the economic summit. Syria was a top subject.

China and Russia have close ties to Syria and have vetoed two U.N. resolutions that mentioned the threat of sanctions against Assad's regime. China and Russia, however, did support an observer mission in Syria and a plan by special envoy Kofi Annan to end the violence.

Obama said Russia and China believe "everyone would be better served" if Syria had a mechanism for ceasing the violence."

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, but Russia was clearly annoyed, and the spat further fueled tensions between the two countries over Syria.

It was not immediately clear whether the helicopters reported to be aboard the Alaed were the ones Clinton had been referring to.

Separately on Tuesday, Syria's government said it was ready to act on a U.N. call to evacuate civilians trapped in the rebellious central city of Homs for more than a week, but blamed rebels for obstructing efforts to get them out.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, chief of the U.N. observer mission in the country, has demanded that all warring parties in the conflict allow safe passage for women, children and sick people who need to leave the city and other combat zones.

Mood, speaking after briefing the U.N. Security Council during a closed meeting on the situation in Syria, said that questions about canceling the mission were premature and noted, "We are not going anywhere."

Activists said shelling and clashes between rebel fighters and troops in Homs continued unabated Tuesday, underlining the difficulty in organizing any sort of evacuation. Fierce shelling was reported on the rebel-held districts of Khaldiyeh and Jouret el-Shayeh and nearby areas. Troops backed by helicopter gunships were also bombarding the town of Rastan, north of Homs, which is controlled by rebels.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reiterated an urgent appeal for world leaders to intervene to stop the shelling that has trapped more than 1,000 families and "the systematic killings that the Syrian people in Homs are being subjected to."

A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement carried by state-run news agency SANA said the government has contacted the U.N. observer mission and local authorities in Homs to start efforts to bring out the trapped civilians.

"But the efforts of the U.N. monitors' mission failed in achieving this goal because of the armed terrorist groups' obstructions," the statement said, claiming that armed groups were using civilians as "human shields."

The Syrian government regularly refers to the rebels as terrorists.

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Associated Press writers Meera Selva in London, Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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