Where Is Air-Defence System Seized En Route To Syria?
In the wake of the explosion at Mari, questions are being asked about what happened to an air-defence system that was confiscated by Cyprus en route to Syria from North Korea on the Panamanian-flagged ship M/V Gregorio I in September 2006.
According to a secret US Embassy Nicosia cable published by Wikileaks.ch, FM Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis was in charge of the situation in which 21 Isuzu trucks, including three command trucks and 18 mobile military radars, were taken into custody at Limassol port. In addition, there were 2,556 metal pipes which 'appeared' to be irrigation-related, according to Marcoullis' comments at the time.
"They had discovered no offensive weapons, Marcoullis clarified, such as missiles, launchers, or anti-aircraft ammunition," goes the cable's text.
Cyprus had grounds to detain the Gregorio because the cargo manifest lied about its load, saying that it was carrying meteorological equipment.
In order to keep the peace with Syria, the foreign ministry said it would treat the matter as an arms export matter and EU rules would apply. Syria would have to obtain a certificate from the government allowing their export from Cyprus. Experts on an advisory committee with members from the foreign, defence, labour and interior ministries would then decide accordingly on granting the export license. Marcoullis said she believed the government could permanently confiscate the equipment should Syria choose not to request the export license.
"As Cyprus did not want to "make an enemy" of the SARG (Syrian government), it was treading carefully on the M/V Gregorio matter," goes the cable's text.
The US offered its technical help after complimenting Cyprus' efforts, but Marcoullis was "polite but non-commital" on the offer. When the US Embassy requested digital photos of the cargo, it was refused.
The foreign minister was not immediately available for comment. A phone call to the ministry was met with a request for the question to be submitted in writing as it is a delicate matter. But now is not the time for prevarication and postponement. It is a time when 13 Cypriots died in an explosion caused by confiscated weapons, and it is in the public interest for ministers to allay fears over more accidents by answering the press' questions promptly and clearly. The alternative is continuing anxiety over whether there will be more accidents and more doubts over whether the government can take care of business.
(Editor note: a cable dated December 2006 on Cyprus' annual anti-terrorism report states that the government released the equipment to Damascus, but this has not been confirmed by the FM.)
Image: file photo of Isuzu air defence trucks.