There were conflicting reports about the whereabouts of a Chinese ship, laden with a cargo of small arms destined for Zimbabwe, after it was turned away from South Africa's port city of Durban.
According to some reports, the 150-metre multipurpose cargo vessel, the An Yue Jiang - registered in China and one of 600 vessels owned by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), dubbed by South African media as the "Ship of Shame" - is now en route to the Angolan capital of Luanda, while others said it was bound for Mozambique's second city, Beira, and another said China had ordered the vessel to return home.
The ship was denied entrance to Durban by the collective efforts of a news magazine editor, Martin Welz, who warned of the ship's impending arrival, industrial action by members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, who said they would not unload the cargo, and the Southern African Litigation Centre, which obtained a High Court order on 18 April, prohibiting passage of the weapons across South African soil.
Mark Hankey, marketing director of the Maritime Intelligence Unit of the international insurer, Lloyds, told IRIN the An Yue Jiang had been listed as a casualty, an umbrella term used for a variety of eventualities, but in this instance referring to its failure to deliver its cargo to the intended destination.
Hankey said according to the latest information they had, the ship was heading for Beira. Mozambique reportedly said the ship would not be allowed into its waters, while Filomeno Mendonca, director of the Institute of Angolan Ports, told the private Angolan radio station, Luanda Radio LAC: "This ship has not sought a request to enter Angolan territorial waters and is not authorised to enter Angolan ports."
Isaak Hamata, spokesman for Namibia's foreign affairs, reportedly said: "We have not received any official request to dock, refuel or off-load the Chinese ship, but if it does come, we would consider it on its merits."
Nastasya Tay, of the Centre for Chinese Studies in Johannesburg, told IRIN that according to her sources, COSCO was considering recalling the ship for commercial reasons, "as it cannot go on just sailing around Africa and hope to dock somewhere".
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in southern Africa and requires the cooperation of at least a second country if the arms shipment is to be delivered.
The South African government, however, voiced no objections to the ship unloading its cargo, which, according to local media reports, comprised millions of rounds of small arms ammunition, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades.
|We don't want to escalate the situation in Zimbabwe more than what it is|
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional body, was quoted by Zambian media on 22 April as saying that "I am glad that South Africa has refused them [although it was civil society that thwarted it] ... and I hope that will be the case" with all other countries.
"We don't want to escalate the situation in Zimbabwe more than what it is," said Mwanawasa, who, before becoming chair of the regional body, described Zimbabwe as a "sinking titanic."
South African President Thabo Mbeki, appointed in 2007 by SADC to mediate between President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has been accused of a partisan attitude towards Mugabe since Zimbabwe's 29 March elections.
Mbeki, on his way to a recent emergency SADC summit in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, infuriated the MDC when he announced that there was "no crisis" in Zimbabwe.
The results of the presidential election have yet to be released, more than three weeks after the event. The MDC claim their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the poll by the required 50 percent plus one vote; if accurate, this would negate a second round of voting for the presidency.
The MDC and civil society have said that since ZANU-PF lost control of parliament in the election - although the ruling party has ordered a recount in 23 constituencies - Mugabe's soldiers and youth militia have unleashed a reign of terror in rural areas.
Weapons to suppress opposition
ZANU-PF has claimed that there was no clear winner in the presidential ballot and a second round of voting was necessary. The MDC said 10 of its supporters had been killed since the poll, and hundreds injured in a campaign dubbed "Operation Mavhoterapapi" (Who did you vote?). The MDC alleges that campaign is designed to intimidate people to vote for Mugabe in a run-off vote.
|We don't think that under present circumstances, given the political crisis in Zimbabwe, that now is the time for anyone to be increasing the number of weapons and armaments available in that country|
Amid reports that ammunition stocks in Zimbabwe's armed forces are running low, the MDC and civil society fear the shipment of weapons could be used in a military clampdown to extend Mugabe's 28 years in power.
US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Washington had asked Beijing "to refrain from making additional shipments and, if possible, to bring this one back," according to international media reports.
"We don't think that under the present circumstances, given the current political crisis in Zimbabwe, that now is the time for anyone to be increasing the number of weapons and armaments available in that country," Casey said.
China's foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, told media in China the shipment was part of "normal military product trade between the two countries," and then said: "As far as I know, the carrier is now considering carrying back the cargo."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions