Last updated: 24 June, 2012

Ship with Syria choppers back in Russian waters

A Russian ship that tried to deliver repaired attack helicopters to Syria entered the northern port of Murmansk on Sunday after being forced to abandon its initial attempt.

The Alaed cargo vessel has dropped anchor at the Northern Fleet’s main base and “is awaiting further instructions,” the Femco operator that leased the ship Alaed for the mission said in a statement.

“Neither Femco nor Alaed’s captain have received any instructions to date from the freighter to alter the route or change the cargo destination port,” Femco said.

An unnamed Russian diplomatic source had earlier told Interfax that the ship would soon try making the highly controversial delivery again but under the Russian flag.

The switch from the Caribbean flag used in the first attempt appears to be a bid to avoid security inspections that come when sailing under the flag of a third country.

Russia says the Soviet-era Mi-25 helicopters are being returned to Syria after being repaired at a factory in its Kaliningrad exclave under a contract that could not be breached.

The ship was forced to turn back when reports of its real mission forced its British insurer to withdraw coverage — a move that effectively barred the Alaed from entering any other ports on its journey.

Moscow has leased the Tartus supply and maintenance base from Syria for decades but requires its cargo vessels to make refuelling stops during deliveries.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday confirmed that the ship was carrying “three helicopters that had been repaired” by Russia for Syria under a 2008 agreement.

Lavrov will meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Saint Petersburg in the coming days for talks that have been clouded by angry rhetoric from both sides about the shipment.

Russia’s top diplomat said on Thursday he felt no need to justify Russia’s behaviour to the United States as Moscow had not violated any rules.

And Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov told Interfax on Sunday that providing “single-sided support for the opposition” would only push Syria into “the depths of a full-scale civil war” with dire consequences for the region.

The question of what happens to the Alaed next is being watched closely as a gauge of Russia’s future intentions in a 16-month conflict that has pitted it against both numerous Arab governments and much of the West.

Its public support for President Bashar al-Assad has cooled considerably considerably in recent months despite the continuing arms shipments.

But Moscow — citing a defence of international law — also refuses to join calls for Assad’s ouster and has vowed to block any attempts by the UN Security Council to authorise the use of foreign force.

Some analysts said Russia may end up sending the disassembled helicopters by air instead of sea to prove its determination in the face of Western pressure while still keeping the shipment quiet.

“They are going to have to take additional steps to keep the delivery secret,” Russian military analyst Vasily Kashin told Interfax.

“They will probably have to rely on air as much as they can.”

Ship operator Femco said the Alaed was originally scheduled to take on additional cargo on entry to Murmansk before setting off for its final destination point in the Russia’s Far East port city of Vladivostok.