Contradictory Claims Cargo on German Freighter Remains a Mystery
The German freighter Atlantic Cruiser, suspected of carrying weapons destined for Syria, is still sailing around the Mediterranean Sea. The company that owns the vessel is contesting the allegation, but the ship's captain claims it is carrying explosives and detonators.
Mystery continues to shroud a German freighter ship chartered by a Ukrainian company that has been cruising around the Mediterranean Sea for a number of days now under the flag of Antigua and Barbuda. Politicians in Germany are in a state of alarm because of reports that the Atlantic Cruiser may be carrying military equipment and munitions allegedly intended for the regime of Bashar Assad, despite the European Union weapons embargo against Syria. SPIEGEL first reported on the developments over the weekend.
On Monday afternoon, the ship's owner, German shipping company Bockstiegel Reederei, commented officially for the first time on the allegations. The company said it had ordered the crew to inspect part of the cargo the ship is carrying. The company said that no weapons for Syria had been found.
"The cargo currently on board had been loaded in Mumbai, India and was destined for Syria, Turkey and Montenegro," the company said in a press release. The company said that according to documents at its disposal, the cargo destined for Syria is composed of "parts for a thermal power plant" that had been shipped by an Indian power plant manufacturer to the Syrian Ministry of Electricity. The company said it had "no indications that the cargo could be, as supposed in news reports, arms, ammunition and heavy weapons." The company said the charter contract with the Ukrainian company "provide(s) that the vessel is only allowed to carry 'lawful cargo,' i.e. that the cargo itself as well as its transport may not be made in breach of the law."
Despite Bockstiegel Reederei's statement, questions remain. The company has provided extensive information about the contents of the cargo intended for Syria that was supposed to be unloaded at the end of last week in the Syrian port of Tartus. But the shipping company hasn't stated what the cargo destined for Turkey and Montenegro contained.
Abbreviations for Explosives and Electronic Equipment
But disclosures made by Atlantic Cruiser's captain indicate the ship is holding more than just the civilian goods on board that have so far been claimed. At the time the captain conducted the ship's transit through the Suez Canal and later at a planned fuel-tanking stop in Cyprus, he claimed he had been transporting cargo with the hazardous goods classes "UN 0105, 0030, 0029 and 0065," abbreviations for explosives and electrical equipment including detonators. After the contents of the cargo were revealed, a Cypriot firm refused to provide fuel for the ship. The ship was not allowed to enter into Cyprus "because of the embargo on munitions being sent to Syria."
There have been conflicting statements about the cargo from the shipping company and the firm that is responsible for managing its freight, C.E.G. Bulk Chartering, as well from the Ukrainian firm that is currently chartering the Atlantic Cruiser.
According to Torsten Lüddecke of C.E.G. Bulk Chartering, the loading papers list only civilian goods like "pumps and similar things." But the Ukrainian firm chartering the ship claims it contains "dangerous cargo," including munitions. However, the company claims they are intended for Turkey and Montenegro and not Syria. "In fact, the vessel isn't even calling (at) Syria at all!" the company stated in an email to SPIEGEL ONLINE sent over the weekend. Ship owner Bockstiegel Reederei, however, claims the ship had intended to call at Tartus in Syria, but only to unload the power plant parts, according to its statement.
The German government has said it will seek to resolve the case as quickly as possible. After all, in diplomatic terms, things could get extremely uncomfortable for Berlin if a German ship were involved in trafficking weapons to the Assad regime. Earlier this week, the Foreign Ministry in Berlin asked its embassies in Nicosia, Beirut and Ankara to contact officials in their host countries to involve them in the matter.
'Ship Owner Was Requested Not to Call at Syrian Ports'
As of Tuesday, the ship still hasn't entered into any port, although shipping company Bockstiegel Reederei's statement said it will soon dock at the Turkish port of Iskenderun. Last Friday, the ship had been stopped off the coast of Syria, turned around and the driven in circles for a time. The ship had been ordered to stop after Syrian opposition politicians warned it was carrying military equipment.
"The ship owner was requested not to call at Syrian ports," Bockstiegel Reederei's statement read. "Otherwise, the vessel would be attacked and sunk." The company said the email had been sent by an organization identifying itself as the "Syrian Revolution Naval Forces."
It also remains a mystery why the transponder that allows the ship's location to be determined has frequently been turned off for extended periods in recent days. On Monday, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) had been turned off once again -- a step described as highly unusual by shipping industry observers. But the shipping firm defended the measure, saying, "Apparently for the sake of its own protection, the crew deactivated the AIS for a certain amount of time in order to prevent the ship from getting attacked."
But the explanation still sounds a bit odd, especially given that the ship waited for a full day and a half off the coast of Syria before heading in the direction of Turkey.