x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Russian ship believed bound for Syria turns back with cargo of helicopters

Boat believed to be bound for Syria changes course after minister's warning to Moscow that its insurance cover was revoked.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters near Idlib in northwestern Syria on Monday.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters near Idlib in northwestern Syria on Monday.

LONDON // Britian's foreign secretary said yesterday that a ship that was believed to be carrying military helicopters to Syria appeared to have turned back after its insurer removed its coverage.

William Hague told British politicians late yesterday that the MV Alaed had "turned back now, apparently toward Russia".

The UK-based insurer, Standard Club, said in a statement that it had been made aware that the ship - then off the Scottish coast - was carrying munitions destined for Syria, in clear breach of its rules.

"We consequently informed the ship owner that their insurance cover ceased automatically in view of the nature of the voyage," the company said.

Britain's foreign office confirmed it was aware that a ship carrying a consignment of refurbished Russian-made attack helicopters was heading to Syria. It said Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, had told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that all defence 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.

The vessel's Russian operator, Femco, refused to comment.

Russia's defence ministry said yesterday it did not send any ships to Syria, and that no drills in the Mediterranean were planned.

The Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Colonel Igor Konashenkov, said that media reports about the alleged deployment were "aimed at further escalating the situation in Syria".

Britain has joined the United States and other countries in pressing Russia to halt arms shipments to President Bashar Al Assad's regime. But maritime experts said the cancellation of the ship's insurance would not necessarily affect its journey.

"Normally it's difficult to trade at a port without insurance cover, but in this case, we are seeing a Russian ship going to a sanctioned country [Syria] that is going to let it in," said James Baker, news editor at the maritime newsletter Lloyd's List.

Mr Baker said he believed the ship could reach Syria without having to stop to refuel.

An article on the website Maritime Bulletin, run by Russian maritime expert Mikhail Voytenko, said revoking the insurance would have little effect, since Russia does not support EU sanctions against weapons shipments to Syria.

The BBC reported yesterday that the ship was about 80 kilometres off the Outer Hebrides off the north-west coast of Scotland.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, issued a harsh reprimand of Russia last week, when she said 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 fuelled tensions between the two countries over Syria.

It was not immediately clear whether the helicopters aboard the MV Alaed were the ones to which Ms Clinton had been referring.

In New York yesterday, the UN Security Council was to examine the future of its observer mission in Syria as civilians remained pinned down by the regime's shelling of rebel strongholds.

The mission's leader, Maj Gen Robert Mood, whose 300 unarmed monitors suspended operations on Saturday because of escalating bloodshed, was to brief the Security Council.

More than 3,300 people have been killed in violence across Syria since the observers were deployed in mid-April and their 90-day initial mandate runs out on July 20.

Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army called on their "Kurdish brothers" to join rebels fighting Mr Al Assad's regime, while promising an end to injustices against Kurds in a future democratic Syria.

"The Joint Command of the Free Syrian Army ... appeals to our Kurdish brothers, soldiers and civilians, and invites them to join the ranks of the FSA inside the country," the group's spokesman, Col Kassem Saadeddine, said.

The Syrian opposition, particularly its political wing in exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has been criticised for the predominance of Islamists in key posts and for not being representative of Syria's diverse religious and ethnic groups. A Kurdish activist, Abdel Basset Sayda, was named on June 10 to lead the SNC, partly in a bid to gain the confidence of Syria's minorities. Kurds represent around nine per cent of Syria's 23 million population.

* Associated Press with additional reporting from Agence-France Presse