Russia admits repair of Syria attack choppers

Russia on Thursday acknowledged for the first time a cargo ship forced to turn back from British waters was carrying attack helicopters bound for Syria that it had repaired for Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The ship, which headed back to Russia after its British insurer withdrew cover, would return to the port of Murmansk on June 23 to sail under the Russian flag rather than that of the Caribbean island of Curacao, said foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.

"The ship Alaed sailed on June 11 with a cargo including Mi-25 helicopters which are the property of the Syrian side," he told reporters.

The ship's cargo had greatly troubled Assad's Western and Arab foes, who have repeatedly called on Moscow to halt all military cooperation with Syria due to the government crackdown on the opposition.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also confirmed the nature of the cargo, saying the ship had carried "three helicopters that had been repaired" by Russia for Syria under an agreement dating back to 2008.

"The repairs were quite serious and thorough," Lavrov told the Echo Moscow radio, adding that the helicopters were being transported in dismantled form.

Lavrov blamed the fact the ship had to turn back on the "unreliability" of the British insurance system. "Contracts and agreements must be fulfilled. That is an irrefutable truth," he added.

He said in the interview the Alaed, owned by Russian cargo shipping line Femco, had also been carrying air defence equipment but gave no further details.

Vladimir Kudelev, an Arab world expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Interfax news agency it was possible the ship was carrying Buk-M2e air defence missile systems.

British media had reported the ship had picked up the helicopters from the Russian port of Kaliningrad, where they had been sent for the repairs.

Lukashevich confirmed the vessel was now on its way to Russia's Arctic Circle port of Murmansk to be transferred to the Russian flag and avoid the security inspections that vessels flagged under third countries must undergo.

"When it was moving into the Atlantic from the North Sea, the owner was informed that insurance cover had ceased," Lukashevich said.

"In order to prevent a possible seizure of the ship, the decision was taken for it to dock in the (Russian Arctic Circle) port of Murmansk where it is expected on Saturday to be re-flagged under the Russian flag," he added.

But he declined to comment when asked if the ship would make another attempt at sailing to Syria once it was re-flagged. "This is not a question for us (the foreign ministry)," he said.

The British insurer, Standard Club, this week confirmed that it had cancelled insurance for the ship and for all others in the Femco fleet after learning of allegations about the nature of its cargo.

Lukashevich said that Russia would maintain its cooperation with Syria but would refrain from delivering arms that could be used against peaceful demonstrators.

"We would like to urge other countries who deliver military technology to this and other regions where there is a risk of its use against peaceful civilians to follow the example of Russia," he added.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 12 first accused Russia of sending the attack helicopters to Syria, saying Moscow's claims its shipments are unrelated to the crackdown on protestors are "patently untrue".

Russia has repeatedly come under fire from the West and its Arab allies for refusing to turn against the Assad regime.

Lavrov told Moscow Echo that Russia was not "clinging to President Assad but want his future to be determined by a general Syrian dialogue."

by Stuart Williams © 2012 AFP

Source: AFP
Date: Jun 21, 2012