Cyprus finds air defense systems on ship to Syria

NICOSIA (Reuters) – A ship bound for Syria from North Korea and detained in Cyprus on an Interpol alert for suspected arms smuggling was carrying air defense systems, Cypriot authorities said yesterday. The shipment was billed as weather-observation equipment on the freight manifest of the Panamanian-flagged Grigorio 1 and officials said the Syrian government had asked Cyprus to release the seized consignment. «To my knowledge, their name doesn’t appear anywhere on the manifest as the consignee, but they have become involved,» a senior shipping industry source in Nicosia told Reuters. He said the vessel had been tracked over a long period of time. The ship was carrying 18 truck-mounted mobile radar systems and three command vehicles. «The radars on the 18 trucks appear to be part of an air defense system,» a police spokeswoman said. Pipes also found on board were irrigation pipes, she added. Senior government officials said the Foreign Ministry would decide what to do with the cargo in consultation with legal authorities. Customs became involved because of the apparent discrepancy with the ship manifest, which listed the cargo as meteorological equipment. The Commerce Ministry was also called to decide whether an export permit was required for the cargo in the event of it being released to Syria. «We will implement the law, nothing more and nothing less. And the political position will be expressed by the foreign minister,» said Justice Minister Sophocles Sophocleous. There are no restrictions on arms supplies to Syria. Neighboring Cyprus, which has friendly relations with Damascus, intercepted the vessel on an Interpol tip. Interpol, contacted by Reuters, declined to elaborate on the nature of its alert to the Cypriot authorities yesterday, referring queries to Nicosia instead. Both NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command and US Naval Forces Europe, which work together on maritime security issues out of Naples, said that neither had been involved in the operation or the tracking of the ship. «This kind of thing could well have come under programs like Operation Active Endeavor, but on this occasion it didn’t,» a spokesman for NATO in Naples said. It was not clear if Cyprus planned to confiscate the equipment. «That is not an issue for police. We have concluded our task and it is now an issue for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Commerce Ministry,» said Iacovos Papacostas, the deputy chief of police. The Grigorio 1, which experts say has changed name and flag five times over the past five years, was detained by Cyprus on September 5.