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Monday, April 16, 2012

Iranian arms ship to Syria intercepted

From Der Spiegel on Saturday:
A German-owned freighter loaded with weapons from Iran was stopped on Friday near the Syrian port of Tartus in the Mediterranean Sea, SPIEGEL has learned.

A few days prior, the Atlantic Cruiser, owned by the Emden carrier Bockstiegel, had allegedly picked up heavy military equipment and munitions meant for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's regime from an Iranian freighter at the Djibouti port. The cargo, desperately needed reinforcements for Assad's crackdown on dissidents, was supposed to be unloaded on Friday.
But defectors from inside the Syrian government had learned of the delivery and warned the shipping company. On Friday the Atlantic Cruiser suddenly changed course, heading for the Turkish harbor of Iskenderun instead. Then the ship stopped some 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Tartus, sailing in circles for the next few hours.

"We stopped the ship after getting information on the weapons cargo," shipping agent Torsten Lüddeke of Hamburg-based C.E.G. Bulk Chartering told SPIEGEL.

According to Lüddeke, the ship had been chartered by an Odessa, Ukraine-based company called White Whale Shipping. "They declared to us as cargo mainly pumps and similar things," he said. "We never would have allowed weapons on board." For now, the 6,200-ton ship will "stay where it is," he added.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian shipping company has insisted that the Atlantic Cruiser is not carrying weapons and that it be allowed to dock in Tartus.

However, SPIEGEL has learned that the ship's crew had attempted to refuel in the Cypriot port of Limassol, but was turned away after reporting its cargo as "weapons and munitions."

The German Economics Ministry told the Associated Press on Saturday that it was looking into the matter, but provided no further details.

The route between Djibouti and Tartus is known as a path for transporting weapons, according to intelligence experts. In January another ship out of Russia was halted with munitions in Cyprus, but later continued its journey with the cargo to Syria after the captain declared he would head to a different port than initially planned.
And today:
Officials in Germany are still seeking information about a German-owned ship believed to be carrying a load of weapons and military equipment that had been destined for the despotic regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad. Since the revelation on Friday, it appears that transponder used to broadcast the ship's whereabouts has been turned off repeatedly. On Monday, though, it appeared to be on again, with the 6,200 ton freighter ship apparently on a course towards Turkey.

...But many questions still persist about the ship -- and the shipping company's version of events has been filled with contradictions for some days now. On Sunday, officials with Bockstiegel would not comment to SPIEGEL ONLINE on the events. Initially, the German freighter was supposed to call at the Syrian port of Tartus at the end of last week. Earlier, the ship had reportedly loaded heavy military equipment and munitions from an Iranian cargo ship in Djibouti that had been intended for Assad's henchmen.

...The behavior of those in charge raises a number of questions. It remains a mystery why the shipping company didn't immediately order the ship to head to a port so that the cargo could be swiftly investigated. The shipping company also could have ordered the ship's captain to make a closer inspection of the freight it is carrying. A quick check of the freight could have quickly answered some of the most pressing questions and also might have exonerated all parties involved. But it appears they didn't want to do that.

Instead, it appears the captain was instead prompted to turn off the ship's transponder so that the Atlantic Cruiser's location could no longer be traced. For 24 hours, the ship could no longer be tracked as it traveled on the high seas. It will also be difficult to determine what happened on the ship during that time. The same applies to Sunday night, when the transponder was yet again turned off. What has been happening on the ship since then?

The shipping company has said off the record that it is normal for the transponder to shut down as soon as the freighter ship stops moving. But ship brokers claim the move is extremely unusual. Experts said that even when a freight ship is at port or in open seas, the transponder is usually in operation, making it possible to track the vessel's whereabouts.
(h/t Yoel)