MEP Slams Nicosia for Handling of Chariot Ship Incident
German Greens Party MEP Franziska Katharina Brantner has slammed the government for its handling of the 'Chariot' ship incident, in which a shipload of weapons was delivered to Syria even though the freighter was briefly detained by Cyprus authorities, according to a statement from Cypriot MEP Yiannis Kassoulides.
In January, the Russian-owned ship left Cyprus waters and docked in the Turkish port of Alexandretta after first travelling to Syrian port Tartus. It is widely believed that the arms were sent to President Bashar al Assad to fight the opposition in Syria, possibly by Russia, which is a Syrian government ally.
Brantner (pictured right) presented a letter of protest to the EU's High Representative Catherine Ashton, and said: 'Cyprus cannot buy a financial bail-out from Russia at the expense of the Syrian opposition,' linking the ship incident with a recent 2.5 billion-euro loan from Russia to Cyprus.
Cyprus received the first tranche of the loan, which was agreed upon in late 2011, in the first week of January.
Kassoulides reacted to the criticism during the session in the EU Parliament, saying that Cyprus did not knowingly breach the EU's embargos on Syria and calling on Ashton to clearly define any responsibilities concerning the 'Chariot' incident.
After the debate, Kassoulides (pictured right) said: "Today I did my duty and intervened to protect Cyprus from being villified. This does not mean I approve of the government's handling of the 'Chariot' matter. Instead, I consider it reckless and unacceptable and we see the results here in the EU Parliament."
The ship was briefly detained in Cyprus by the local authorities on January 10 when it was found to carry munitions to Syria in violation of EU imposed restrictions. It was, however, released the next day when the St. Petersburg-based Westberg Ltd, owner of the ship, assured the Cypriot authorities that it would sail to Alexandretta in Turkey and not to Syria.
'Chariot' then vanished off radar screens after apparently switching off its Automatic Identification System (AIS), which enables vessels to be tracked. The Cyprus Ministry of Foreign Affairs made the following statement after releasing the ship on Wednesday January 11:
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was informed by the Customs Authority, January 10 2012, in the afternoon, that the cargo ship Chariot, had anchored in the Limassol harbour area for refuelling. Cyprus was not the destination of the vessel but it was obliged to seek refuge and fuel in Limassol due to bad weather conditions it encountered at sea.
The ship carries the flag of St. Vincent and The Grenadines, and is owned by Westberg Ltd. (St. Petersburg, Russia), a Russian shipping company. The ship departed from the port of St. Petersburg on December 9 2011. The Customs and Ports Authorities of the Republic of Cyprus carried out the procedures as dictated by the law and examined the documents of the ship and the cargo. Moreover, external checks of the four containers and of the electric generator on board were also carried out.
Actual examination of the content of the containers was not possible due to the narrow confines of the ship. It was concluded that the ship carried dangerous cargo with destination to Syria and Turkey. The relevant authorities prevented the refuelling and departure of the ship from its Limassol anchorage until the situation was clarified.
Following coordinated efforts by the relevant authorities, the owners of the aforementioned ship decided to change the destination of the cargo. Moreover, the Regulations and Decisions of the Council of the European Union relevant to the restrictions concerning the situation in Syria, were taken into account.
It was concluded that the relevant European Union restrictions are not being violated. As a result, the necessary procedures were put in place and permission was granted for the refuelling and departure of the ship.”
Cyprus experienced tragedy in July 2011 when 98 containers of confiscated explosives blew up, killing 13 in Evangelos Florakis naval base. They were seized from the Monchegorsk ship, en route to Syria from Iran, and carrying high explosives in breach of UN sanctions on Iran.
Since the explosion, authorities have treated suspect vessels very much like plague ships, avoiding the responsibility of seizing any cargo or arresting any suspected arms dealers. In the most recent example, Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis gave instructions to refuse permission for a freighter called the 'Atlantic Cruiser' to approach the island. The 'Atlantic Cruiser' was suspected by Germany of carrying arms to Syria and also docked in Alexandretta after a brief period when its tracking system was switched off. It has not been confirmed whether the ship was carrying munitions or whether it unloaded them in Syria.
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