A German shipping company ordered its vessel Atlantic Cruiser to turn its transponder back on Monday after the ship suspected of smuggling Iranian arms to Syria switched off the tracking system because its crew feared attack, the firm said on Monday.
The Bockstiegel shipping company also said in a statement it had no information about any weapons on board the ship which was originally destined for Syria. Sending weapons to Syria would be in violation of a European Union arms embargo.
Respected news weekly Der Spiegel reported at the weekend that the ship, the Atlantic Cruiser, owned by Bockstiegel but chartered by a Ukrainian firm, had been stopped on the high seas with Iranian weapons on board.
But Bockstiegel said: “According to the description of the goods in our documents as well as their appearance, the firm has no indication that they are weapons, ammunition or heavy military equipment, as stated in the press.”
“The firm is in constant contact with the company that chartered the ship, which for its part stresses that the shipment for Syria did not contain weapons or military equipment, but exclusively legal goods for civilian use,” it added.
The German company said goods were loaded on the ship in Mumbai, India and it was destined for Syria, Turkey and Montenegro. A portion of the goods were off-loaded at Djibouti and no new goods were taken on board there, Bockstiegel said.
According to the shipping firm’s documents, the equipment bound for Syria consisted of parts for a thermal power station.
Nevertheless, the firm acknowledged that “the crew only has access to the container stacked at the top”. This was being inspected and appeared to consist of wires and cables, the statement said.
The Ukraine-based company, White Whale Shipping, had declared its cargo as “pumps and the like”.
Bockstiegel has ordered the ship not to continue its journey until the facts are established and has agreed with the German government that the vessel would not dock in Syria until the cargo could be checked at a safe third-country port.
The firm did not say where this could take place, nor did it indicate the current co-ordinates of the vessel.
But according to maritime tracking data, the vessel last appears at around 0900 GMT on Monday about 100 km off the coast of Syria and appeared to be heading towards Turkey.
Quizzed at a regular news conference earlier Monday, a spokeswoman for Economy Minister Philipp Roesler stressed the legal difficulties of such a case, given the ship was flagged under a third country, Antigua and Barbuda.
Iran is under a U.N. arms embargo imposed in 2007 due to its alleged nuclear activities while Western countries have declared a similar embargo against Iranian ally Syria since a bloody crackdown on dissent began over a year ago.
The German government said there are still unanswered questions about the ship’s cargo.
“There are a lot of questions to be cleared up,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman on Monday in Berlin.
In Kiev, the firm leasing the ship denied the accusations that arms are on board, Ukrainian TV network Channel 5 reported.
Olexander Varvarenko, executive director of Varamar, which acts as the agent for White Whale Shipping, said there were no weapons on board.
“The vessel was transporting … cargo meant for a construction project on the Syrian territory,” he told Channel 5. “The cargo is not dangerous, it has nothing to do with either arms or the military, it has no military use.”
Varvarenko said the vessel was now awaiting orders either from the Ukrainian company or from its German owners.
Djibouti port authorities have also denied reports that the vessel had loaded arms there.
Saad Omar Guelleh, the chief executive officer of the Port of Djibouti, confirmed the Atlantic Cruiser had docked in the Red Sea port between April 3 and April 7 but said nothing had been loaded onto the vessel.
“(The Atlantic Cruiser) only off-loaded five containers carrying civilian materials destined for Ethiopia,” Guelleh said.
“No ship carrying weapons for Syria has passed through Djibouti,” he said, adding the port authorities rigidly obeyed United Nations resolutions.