A German-owned ship suspected of carrying weapons and ammunition heading to Syria was being towed into Turkey’s Mediterranean Iskenderun port for inspection on Wednesday, officials said.
“We received information that the vessel has a cargo of arms and ammunition headed for Syria,” a source told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that Turkish authorities would search the vessel later in the day.
The “Atlantic Cruiser” is already being investigated by Germany after Der Spiegel news magazine reported the ship was carrying Iranian weapons to Syria in breach of an arms embargo.
Turkish Foreign Ministry and port officials said the ship was being towed into the port which is located on Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean coast just over 100 km (60 miles) north of Syria, on suspicion it was carrying weapons.
The officials could not confirm if there were weapons aboard but said they were planning to inspect all the ship’s cargo once it had been offloaded. The ship had been due to offload some of its cargo in Turkey as part of its route, they said.
A Reuters reporter in Iskenderun said he could see Turkish police from the customs and smuggling department on board the ship. Port officials said they had already inspected parts of the ship and would allow photographers aboard once the ship was docked.
German shipping company W. Bockstiegel, which owns the Atlantic Cruiser, ordered the vessel on Monday to turn its transponder back on after the ship switched off the tracking system because its crew feared attack.
The shipping firm denied allegations that its vessel was carrying Iranian arms to Syria, violating EU sanctions against the Damascus regime.
White Whale Shipping, the Ukrainian company that chartered the Atlantic Cruiser has also denied there were arms on board and said its cargo was civilian goods
According to www.marinetraffic.com, a website that tracks global ship movements, the Atlantic Cruiser was just off the coast of Iskenderun on Wednesday morning and was sailing under a Antigua Barbuda flag. Earlier, Turkish Dogan news agency said it was flying a Bermudan flag.
“Pumps and the like”
Der Spiegel reported the ship had loaded its cargo in Djibouti last week and changed course for Iskenderun in Turkey on Friday when the cargo was at risk of being uncovered.
The ship stopped about 80 km (50 miles) southwest of the Syrian port of Tartus, its initial destination, it said.
The magazine quoted ship broker Torsten Lueddeke of Hamburg-based C.E.G. Bulk Chartering as saying: “We stopped the ship after we received information on the weapons cargo”.
White Whale Shipping had declared the cargo as “pumps and the like”, the magazine reported.
W. Bockstiegel said goods were loaded on the ship in Mumbai, India and it was destined for Syria, Turkey and Montenegro. A portion of the goods were off-loaded at Djibouti and no new goods were taken on board there, it said.
Its crew members inspected the top of the cargo that it could open and found only cable drums and tubes.
The German government has said there are still unanswered questions about the ship’s cargo.
During a U.N. Security Council briefing last month, the United States and Britain accused Iran of shipping weapons to Syria they said were being used against the Syrian people.
American and European security officials have also said Iran is providing a broad array of assistance to Assad to help suppress anti-government protests, including high-tech surveillance technology.
Iran and Syria have denied charges of arms trade and last month, Damascus told the United Nations armed “terrorist groups” in Syria were receiving weapons from supporters in Lebanon and other states along the Syrian border.
Iran is under a U.N. arms embargo imposed in 2007 due to its alleged nuclear activities while Western countries have declared a similar embargo against Iranian ally Syria since the bloody crackdown on dissent began over a year ago.
Amid Damascus’ violent crackdown, Turkey imposed gradual sanctions against its neighbor -- including interception of arms shipments there by air, land and sea.
Throughout last year, Turkey intercepted several ships and trucks suspected of carrying weapons into Syria through Turkish territory.