'Syria pressuring Cyprus over Iranian arms ship'

European diplomats: Cyprus in the middle of a tug of war between EU and Syria over ship's cargo.

cyprus ship iran arms hamas 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
cyprus ship iran arms hamas 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The EU and Syria are engaged in a tug-of-war over an intercepted ship suspected of transporting explosives from Iran to Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, European diplomats said Wednesday. Cyprus is caught in the middle, they said, because the vessel docked there after the US military boarded it. Two diplomats recently told The Associated Press that Syria, described by the US as the port of destination for the vessel, is pressuring Cyprus over what it should do with the ship's cargo. It was unclear how much pressure and what kind the Syrians were exerting. Syrian Justice Minister Mohammed al-Ghufari visited Cyprus late last month on a little-publicized visit weeks after the US Navy boarded the Cypriot-flagged Monchegorsk off the island nation and found what Washington suspects were weapons from Iran meant for Hamas militants in Gaza. The US military said it could not legally detain the ship, which it said was headed for Syria. The vessel continued on to Port Said, Egypt, and then on January 29 docked in Cyprus, where its cargo - described by Cypriot officials as material that could be used to manufacture munitions - was offloaded. The Cypriot government says the ship breached a UN ban on Iranian arms exports. Israel and the United States accuse Iran and Syria of supplying Hamas with weapons, something both Mideast nations deny. Israel launched a 22-day offensive on Hamas-controlled Gaza in late December to halt militants' rocket fire on Israelis and the smuggling of arms that turned Hamas into a threat to much of southern Israel. A government official from a country in the region told the AP that Ghufari's delegation "was instructed to reach secret agreements with Cyprus" that would allow the Syrians to receive at least part of the cargo at the Syrian port of Latakia. Two Cypriot government employees familiar with Ghufari's visit could not confirm that, saying the subject was not broached at least in formal meetings the Syrian official had with his Cypriot hosts. But one of the European diplomats said the Cypriots made it known to the European powers, Britain, France and Germany, that they feel under pressure from the Syrians over the incident. And both told the AP that Cyprus in turn is being urged by European Union governments to heed guidance from the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee set up in 2006 to oversee a Security Council embargo on Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and an export ban on arms and related material. All of the officials spoke on the issue only on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential. Syrian officials have been unreachable for comment in recent days. Cyprus, with its nearest coastal point only less than 100 kilometers west of Syria, has traditionally been close to the Arab world. But the Greek-majority island is geographically part of Europe and joined the European Union in 2004, a move formally aligning it with the 26 other nations of the bloc. Britain has signaled that it is ready to help Cyprus dispose of the Monchegorsk's cargo. Caroline Flint, London's minister for Europe, told Damascus officials that Britain and other nations "will want to help in whatever way we can." But while acknowledging that the cargo contravened the UN ban, Cypriot officials have not yet taken steps to destroy it; Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou said last month that such a move is a "technical matter" to be examined "at the appropriate time."