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Russian ship bound for Syria reverses course

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LONDON — British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament on Tuesday that a Russian ship believed to be carrying helicopters and weapons had aborted its journey to Syria after losing insurance coverage.

The British government informed the Standard Club insurance company that continuing to insure the MV Alaed ship would violate European sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if the ship were found to be carrying weapons or other forbidden material, news services reported.

“We were made aware of the allegations that the Alaed was carrying munitions destined for Syria, which would be a clear breach of our club rule,” Standard Club said in a statement. “We consequently informed the ship owner that their insurance cover ceased automatically in view of the nature of the voyage.”

The ship then changed course and was set to return to Russia, its cargo intact, Hague said.

The Obama administration accused Russia a week ago of planning to supply new attack helicopters to Syria, which for more than a year has been brutally suppressing a popular revolt against Assad’s rule. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later backtracked, saying the helicopters in question were Syrian-owned and had merely been in Russia for routine repairs.

Russia, one of Syria’s strongest allies, has refused to join U.S.-led attempts to pressure Assad to honor a U.N.-brokered cease-fire with the rebels.

“We have in place a European Union arms embargo for Syria, and we discourage anyone else from supplying it with arms,” Hague said Tuesday in Parliament. “We have had specific discussions with Russia on that matter, and I am pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back, apparently towards Russia.”

On Monday, President Obama used a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at the Group of 20 summit to urge Putin to help force Assad and his ruling Baath Party out of power. But Putin made no commitments.

“We agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence,” Obama said in brief remarks to reporters after the meeting. Obama called the bloodshed “horrific” and said he and Putin agreed to work with the United Nations, special envoy Kofi Annan and other “international actors” to find a resolution.

The Russian president agreed with Obama that a “political process” must be established in Syria to prepare for a democratic government, even though he did not directly address Assad’s future, White House aides said.

Although Obama emphasized that Assad must go, Putin pursued “a bigger discussion,” said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

“Russia sees it as its right to act as it pleases, to trade with whom it pleases, and the fact of the matter is that ethical considerations don’t weigh very heavily on its decision-making,” said James Nixey, manager of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

Asked what impact the incident would have on British-Russian relations, Nixey said: “This is the latest bump in the road.”

“At the political level, things aren’t good right now, and quite frankly, they haven’t been good since 2006,” Nixey said. He cited a number of issues that have caused antagonism between the countries, including the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian exile who was living in London when he was poisoned in November 2006.

But Nixey stressed that even though political relations are strained, the ship incident would do little to dent the strong cultural and economic ties between Moscow and London, a city sometimes dubbed “Londongrad” and “Moscow on the Thames.”

“That relationship will continue — there’s a cultural foundation, there’s a socio-economic foundation — and that’s almost impregnable,” he said.

Wilgoren reported from Washington. Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report from San Jose del Cabo, Mexico.

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