A ship carrying military helicopters and missiles from Russia to Syria was halted off the coast of Scotland on Tuesday after its British insurers canceled the vessel’s cover, prompting it to turn back.
The MV Alaed was carrying weapons and Mi25 helicopters from the Russian port of Kaliningrad, the Daily Telegraph reported.
The vessel has been closely monitored by intelligence agencies since Secretary of State Hillary Clintonlast week said such shipments were adding to the arsenal of weaponry available in Syria, which has spiraled into civil war.
Britain’s Foreign Office said no physical intervention had been made to prevent the ship’s progress. However, Foreign Secretary William Hague told lawmakers on Tuesday that the vessel had ”turned back now apparently toward Russia.” That could not be independently verified as the ship appeared to have turned off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) equipment in the early hours of Monday.
Clinton last week said Moscow had “dramatically” escalated the crisis in Syria by sending attack helicopters there. The State Department acknowledged later the helicopters she accused Moscow of sending were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime, but Russia was clearly annoyed, and the spat further fueled tensions between the two countries over Syria. It was not immediately clear whether the helicopters aboard the MV Alaed were the ones to which Clinton had been referring.
The British marine insurer, Standard Club, said it had withdrawn cover from the ship’s owner, Femco, a Russian cargo line.
Arms shipments from Russia to Syria are not prohibited by the United Nations because attempts to impose sanctions have been vetoed by allies of Damascus, including Moscow.
However, a European Union arms embargo outlaws the “transfer or export” of arms and any related “brokering” services such as insurance to Syria by EU members, including Britain.
“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.”
“Having its insurance withdrawn will be a problem for the MV Alaed,” said Liz McMahon, senior reporter on insurance for maritime specialist, Lloyd’s List. “It could make entering other ports difficult.”
The Soviet-era helicopters onboard MV Alaed were returning to Syria after being sent to their Russian manufacturer, Mil, for servicing and repairs, the Telegraph reported.
NBC News first reported last week that Russia is preparing to send troops to Syria in the event that it needs to protect personnel and remove equipment from its naval facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartus.
Syria is Moscow’s firmest foothold in the Middle East and buys weapons from Russia worth billions of dollars. It also hosts the Russian navy’s only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.
Russia has used its U.N. Security Council veto to dilute Western efforts to condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad and secure his exit from power, arguing that deposing a government using external pressure is unacceptable.