Mystery of ship bearing arms for Mugabe regime

Arms row ? the An Yue Jiang in Durban last week with weapons
bound for Zimbabwe, and (inset) Kwazulu-Natal church groups
protest.

Arms row ? the An Yue Jiang in Durban last week with weapons bound for Zimbabwe, and (inset) Kwazulu-Natal church groups protest.

 
Donna Bryson, Johannesburg
April 20, 2008

THERE were conflicting reports last night about the destination of a Chinese ship carrying weapons for Zimbabwe after it left South African waters.

A human rights group monitoring the vessel warned that any country that allowed the arms to be transferred to Zimbabwe would be in violation of international law.

The An Yue Jiang left Durban harbour on Friday, soon after a court ordered that there could be no movement of the cargo or the ship itself. Its arrival last week increased concern about tensions in Zimbabwe, where the ruling party and the opposition are locked in a dispute over presidential elections.

A South African Government official, speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that there were weapons on board but gave no further details.

The ship was originally reported to be headed for the Mozambique ports of Maputo or Beira, the closest harbours to landlocked Zimbabwe, but yesterday there were reports that it was moving south along the South African coast, possibly to Luanda in Angola, a close ally of Zimbabwe.

The ship's master, who identified himself as Captain Sunaijun, said by radio phone: "I am awaiting orders from my owner."

He refused to answer any other questions.

Nicole Fritz, director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, which asked the court to intervene to stop the arms from being transported on to Zimbabwe, said the centre had been informed that the ship's next scheduled stop was Luanda.

"But this doesn't mean it will go there," she said.

Ms Fritz said the centre would do everything it could to prevent the weapons from reaching Zimbabwe, including possible legal action or pursuing the matter through international diplomatic channels.

She said countries had "specific legal obligations" that prevent the movement of arms into countries where there were concerns about "systematic human rights violations and violations of fundamental freedoms".

Ms Fritz's organisation had raised concerns that the ship's cargo of thousands of mortar grenades and bullets was headed to Zimbabwe, where there have been increasing accounts of widespread attacks on the country's civilian population by Government forces.

Anglican bishop Rubin Phillip, one of the applicants in the court case, said that it was clear that those involved with the ship wanted to avoid a legal battle.

"One wonders what really is going on," he said. "It would be a travesty if another African country allowed the shipment to take place. It would be a slap in the face to the ordinary people of Zimbabwe."

Ms Fritz said the Durban High Court granted the order for the ship's conveyance permit to be suspended and that there could be no movement of the containers in which the arms were kept and no movement of the ship.

However, lawyers were told by the Sheriff of the High Court that, when an attempt to serve the order on the ship was made, the vessel was already sailing away, she said.

"It was called back but made no acknowledgment of the order," she said.

South African port and truck workers yesterday said they would refuse to offload the weapons.

"This vessel must return to China with the arms on board, as South Africa cannot be seen to be facilitating the flow of weapons into Zimbabwe at a time where there is a political dispute and a volatile situation," the Congress of South African Trade Unions said, reiterating its calls for Zimbabwean electoral officials to release the results of March 29 presidential elections.

China is one of Zimbabwe's main trading partners and allies.