EU- A Russian-operated ship said to be carrying military helicopters to Syria appears to have turned back after its British insurer removed coverage for the vessel, U.K. officials told press on Tuesday.
Britain's Foreign Office said the ship, the MV Alaed, changed course in Europe after news reports emerged about its alleged contents.
“We have in place a European Union arms embargo on Syria. We discourage anyone else from supplying arms to Syria. We have had discussions with Russia about that specifically.” UK Foreign Office said Tuesday.
Earlier, the Foreign Office confirmed it was aware that a ship carrying a consignment of refurbished Russian-made attack helicopters was heading to Syria.
The ship has "turned back now apparently toward Russia," Foreign Secretary William Hague told British lawmakers in Parliament. The vessel appeared to have been avoiding UK territorial waters and EU territorial waters, his ministry added.
Earlier on Tuesday, press reports said that 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.
The British marine insurer Standard Club said it had withdrawn cover from all the ships owned by Femco, a Russian cargo line, including the MV Alaed.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.
British officials 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.
Earlier this week, the US notified the UK government that the insurance was British last week. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on June 12 that the United States was "concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria." She said such a sale "will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
As it neared the Dutch coast, the EU 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.
Russia also announced it was preparing to send an elite unit of marines to Tartous, a move which a Western defense 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.
Interfax news agency reported on Monday that two large landing ships were preparing to depart for Syria - if necessary - with marines on board.
Press reports on Monday indicated that the Russian move is seen as an attempt to ensure the safety of Russian nationals stationed at the strategic naval base Moscow operates on Syria's Mediterranean coast.
Russia is preparing to send marines to Syria in the event that it needs to protect personnel and remove equipment from its naval facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartous, Interfax said.
The ships, crews and marines "are capable, in case of need, to provide security for Russian citizens and remove property from the logistics facility (in Tartous)," Interfax quoted the unnamed officer as saying.
Russia says it uses the facility to service its ships in the region, including those on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, where it cooperates with NATO.
Russian warships call at Tartous only occasionally and an upsurge in naval activity near Syria this year has been seen as a show of support for the government, an ally of Moscow's since the Soviet era.
Press reports on Tuesday added that Russian officials have not commented on the ship or its reported contents. The vessel's Russian operator, Femco, refused to comment Tuesday.
Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East, and has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons industries for the last four decades, acquiring billions of dollars' worth of combat jets, helicopters, missiles, armored vehicles and other military gear. Russia has also shielded President Bashar al-Assad's regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown.