A Russian ship believed to be carrying helicopters and missiles for Syria has been effectively stopped in its tracks off the coast of Scotland after its insurance was cancelled at the behest of the British government.
– Britain stops Russian ship carrying attack helicopters for Syria (Telegraph, June 19, 2012):
The British marine insurer Standard Club said it had withdrawn cover from all the ships owned by Femco, a Russian cargo line, including the MV Alaed.
“We were made aware of the allegations that the Alaed was carrying munitions destined for Syria,” the company said in a statement. “We have already informed the ship owner that their insurance cover ceased automatically in view of the nature of the voyage.”
British security officials confirmed they had told Standard Club that providing insurance to the shipment was likely to be a breach of European Union sanctions against the Syrian regime.
They said they were continuing to monitor the ship, which has been the subject of a fierce international row since US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week revealed it was adding to the arsenal of weaponry available for Mr Assad to use against rebellious Syrian towns.
“We have various ways of keeping track of this ship and that is what we are doing,” a source told The Daily Telegraph.
The MV Alaed picked up its cargo of Mi25 helicopters – known as “flying tanks” – from the Russian port of Kaliningrad, where they had been sent to the state-owned manufacturer Mil’s “Factory 150” for servicing and repairs.
They were originally sold to the Syrian government by Moscow, its major arms supplier, at the end of the Soviet era.
The ship headed south through the North Sea towards the English Channel on its way to the Mediterranean and, most likely, the Syrian port of Tartous, also home to a Russian naval base.
But under sanctions announced last year, the EU has banned not only exporting arms to Syria but also providing related services such as insurance.
As first revealed by The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend, the US notified the UK government that the insurance was British last week.
As it neared the Dutch coast, the authorities there also hailed the ship, the security sources said, and it made an abrupt turn, heading towards Scotland. It was last night now off the coast of the Hebrides but with no insurance covering the ship security sources say it may now have to return to port.
In their attempts to bombard rebel towns into submission, Assad regime forces have increasingly brought up helicopters, strafing the towns of Haffa and Rastan last week.
Their use, condemned by Kofi Annan, the UN peace envoy, has not stopped Russia’s continued insistence on providing arms to the Syrians. Moscow is continuing with a 2007 contract to provide more than 20 MiG-29 M2 fighter aircraft, according to the Americans.
Russia also announced it was preparing to send an elite unit of marines to Tartous, a move which a Western defence source said was intended as a powerful signal that Russia would not tolerate foreign military intervention.
Classified US satellite images last week indicated that loading work had begun on two amphibious landing vessels, the Nikolai Filchenkov and the Caesar Kunikov, at the Crimean naval base of Sebastopol.
A Russian officer quoted by the Interfax news agency said they would carry marines charged with protecting the security of Russian citizens and evacuating a part of the base, marking the first time Moscow has sent troops to Syria since the uprising against Mr Assad began more than 15 months ago.
If fully loaded, the two vessels could carry as many as 600 troops and 24 tanks.
Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta, citing anonymous military sources, suggested that the soldiers would be drawn from the elite Pskov airborne brigades and special forces units stationed in Chechnya.
Russia was particularly unnerved after William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and other Western officials compared the slaughter in Syria to the civil war in Bosnia in the 1990s, the Western defence source said.
They believed the comparisons amounted to a coded signal that the West was preparing to authorise a Nato mission to Syria similar to the peacekeeping operation mounted in Bosnia and later in Kosovo.
But the deployment also signalled that Russia was hedging its bets, according to the source.
“The purpose is threefold,” he said. “First, they want to send a signal to the West about military intervention. Second, they want to demonstrate support for Assad.
“But they are also preparing for the worst and realise that the worsening situation may leave them no choice but to evacuate their nationals as a last resort. If that happens, it is game over for the Russians.
“They project strength, but know their position in Syria is actually a weak one. It may be this is a last throw of the dice.”
At a meeting on the sides of the G20 summit in Mexico, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, agreed a political process was needed to “stop the bloodshed in Syria”, according to a joint statement.