MOSCOW (Reuters) - A ship carrying Russian helicopters to Syria, which turned back after its insurance was cut, is expected to resume its journey accompanied by at least one other vessel, Interfax reported on Sunday, citing a military source.
The report is likely to reignite international criticism of Russia’s arms deliveries to Syria which U.S. officials have called reprehensible and the Arab League has said should be stopped.
“A military-diplomatic source in Moscow told Interfax that (the ship) will go from Murmansk to Syria. According to his information the ship should travel under escort,” the news agency reported.
The ship Alaed, which entered the Russian port of Murmansk on Sunday to change its flag to the Russian Standard, will not be accompanied by military vessels, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The report did not say how the ship had resolved its insurance problems or what difference the flag change would make.
Russia acknowledged on Thursday it was trying to send repaired combat helicopters - not new equipment - to Syria.
Moscow is one of Assad’s main arms suppliers and has shielded its long-standing ally President Bashar al-Assad from tougher U.N. sanctions over his crackdown on a 16-month revolt.
News of the resumption of the delivery came as Turkey accused Syria on Sunday of shooting down a military plane in international airspace without warning. Russia has sold Syria air defense systems, but Damascus has said the jet was downed by anti-aircraft fire, not missiles.
Moscow has said the shipment was unrelated to the violence inside Syria, something U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed on June 13 as “patently untrue”.
There is no U.N. arms embargo on Syria. Russia has said it is fulfilling old contracts signed before the Syrian violence began and sending defensive weapons that can only be used to protect the country from outside aggression.
The ship’s Russian operator Femco did not confirm that the ship Alaed was heading back to Syria, but said it would maintain its declared itinerary and travel to the Far East Russian port of Vladivostok. One likely route to Vladivostok would take it close to Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
“As a purely commercial organization, Femco is informing that the Alaed is carrying out a commercial trip on the basis of a time charter contract with a Russian state company,” the statement said.
Syria is Moscow’s firmest foothold in the Middle East and hosts the Russian navy’s only permanent warm water port outside the former Soviet Union.
Russia has used its Security Council veto to dilute Western efforts to condemn Assad and secure his exit from power, arguing that it is not up to outsiders to decide the political matters of sovereign states.
“We have no doubt that the imposition of any kind of regime change in Damascus from outside, and the one-sided support of the opposition is a straight path to plunge the country into a abyss of full civil war,” Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov told Interfax on Sunday.
A Moscow-based defense analyst Ruslan Aliyev said the Alaed was carrying 12-15 Mi-25 helicopters that were repaired in Kaliningrad and bought by Assad’s late father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad at the end of the 1980s.
The Alaed first set off from the Russian port of Baltiisk in the Baltic province of Kaliningrad on June 11.
Reporting By Thomas Grove; Editing by Andrew Heavens