Cyprus stops ship to check for arms cargo

30/01/2009 - 20:28

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cypriot authorities have detained a vessel from Iran and are investigating whether it was carrying an illegal cargo of weapons, diplomatic sources said on Friday.

It was unclear where the ship was destined. Israel's Haaretz newspaper said the vessel was loaded with weapons and heading to Syria when it was intercepted.

The Cyprus-flagged ship was suspected of carrying weapons destined for the Lebanese Islamist guerrilla group Hezbollah or for Islamist Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, Haaretz quoted Israeli sources as saying. Cypriot media said the vessel was thought to be carrying gunpowder.

Cypriot President Demetris Christofias confirmed the authorities had detained a ship. He said the cargo appeared to be "in contravention of Security Council resolutions" but declined to give further details.

"We are handling this situation in a responsible manner and I cannot make comments which could ... cause more problems," Christofias told reporters.

"We are investigating to see what it is carrying."

Diplomatic sources said the vessel had departed from Iran. One source said authorities were probing an apparent violation of United Nations resolution 1747, which prohibits the transfer of munitions and related materials from Iran.

Haaretz, quoting a European Union diplomatic source, said Cyprus had acted after Israel and the United States requested that the vessel be stopped.

Authorities contacted the ship and demanded it dock for inspection. Customs officials had unloaded part of the cargo and found a large amount of weaponry, including artillery rounds and rockets, the paper said.

Cypriot state television said the vessel was two kilometres off the southern Limassol port and was likely to be brought in to port early Saturday for inspection.

Cypriot government officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

On Wednesday, U.S. military officials said personnel from the U.S. Navy last week boarded the Cypriot-flagged "Monchegorsk," a cargo vessel travelling from Iran to Syria, and found a weapons shipment but for legal reasons did not confiscate the cargo.

The officials declined to say what kind of weapons were found or how many.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Ktisti in Nicosia, writing by Ori Lewis and Michele Kambas, editing by Janet Lawrence)

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