Danny Kemp, AFP
Last updated: 19 June, 2012

Russian ship halted over Syria arms claims

A Russian ship allegedly carrying attack helicopters destined for Syria has turned back from British waters and is believed to be returning home, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday.

The vessel, the MV Alaed, had stopped off the Scottish coast after its British insurer said it had withdrawn cover because of the claims that it was carrying arms for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“I am pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back apparently towards Russia,” Hague told parliament.

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was “aware of a ship carrying a consignment of refurbished Russian-made attack helicopters heading to Syria”, although it did not specify whether it was the Alaed.

It said Hague had told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov when they met on June 14 in Afghanistan that “all defence shipments to Syria must stop”.

The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported that the ship, owned by Russian cargo line Femco, had picked up its cargo of Mi-25 helicopters from the Russian port of Kaliningrad, where they had been sent for servicing and repairs.

The United States alerted Britain to the consignment and British security services told Standard Club that providing insurance for the shipment would breach EU sanctions, reports said.

The insurer, Standard Club, confirmed that it had cancelled insurance for the ship and for all others in the fleet owned by Russian cargo line Femco.

“We were made aware of the allegations that the Alaed was carrying munitions destined for Syria, which would be a clear breach of our Club rules,” it said in a statement provided to AFP.

“We consequently informed the ship owner that their insurance cover ceased automatically in view of the nature of the voyage.”

A spokesman for Standard Club said the withdrawal of insurance was “not because of any external pressure”. But the spokesman declined to say where the information about the shipment came from.

Femco said it had annulled a contract with the ship’s current commercial operator, Denmark’s United Nordic Shipping “per mutual consent” as of Monday, but did not give further details.

There was no immediate reaction from Russian authorities.

But a Russian shipping website added to the air of mystery around the shipment by saying that the Alaed was probably returning from Syria after having dropped off the helicopters.

The Maritime Bulletin, a specialist website run by Russian shipping analyst Mikhail Voitenko, said the ship had stopped reporting its Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking data on June 18.

It had by that stage passed the waters of Scotland and England in a direction taking it to the Baltic shores of Russia.

Maritime Bulletin also noted a big hole in Alaed’s official port call history between May 2 when it was in Gibraltar and Saint Petersburg on June 4. The journey between the two would normally have taken eight to ten days.

The website also quoted United Nordic Shipping as saying it had recently sold the Alaed to Femco and “was extremely sorry for ever having had dealings” with the Russian shipping firm.

United Nordic Shipping was not immediately available for comment.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia one week ago of fuelling the violence by sending attack helicopters to Syria, which she said were “on the way”.

Russia last week said it was not making any new deliveries of attack helicopters to Syria and has only carried out repairs of helicopters which were sold to Damascus in the Soviet era.

In Moscow, news reports Monday said that Russia was preparing to send two warships to the Syrian port of Tartus where Moscow operates a strategic naval base to ensure the safety of its nationals.