By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
JOHANNESBURG, April 22 -- A Chinese ship carrying weapons and ammunition for Zimbabwe's military may be headed back home, reports said, after repeated attempts to deliver its cargo were frustrated by a coalition of legal activists, union workers and human rights groups.
The region's resistance to the shipment, which drew praise from the United States on Tuesday, marks a dramatic turn from southern Africa's traditional embrace of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and its reverence for national sovereignty.
It also signals the strength of South Africa's mounting backlash against President Thabo Mbeki's traditionally deferential dealings with Mugabe. The resistance from union workers, almost all of whom are members of his African National Congress, was decisive in preventing the ship from unloading its cargo of bullets and mortars on schedule.
The 489-foot An Yue Jiang was near the Cape of Good Hope on Tuesday night, headed northwest at a modest speed, according to Lloyd's Marine Intelligence Unit, based in London. But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said that because the shipment could not be unloaded, despite being part of a "perfectly normal trade," the cargo would probably return to China. Jiang added that she hoped the incident would not be "politicized."
The ship has sparked international concern at a time when the political stalemate in Zimbabwe over the Mugabe government's failure to release results from a March 29 presidential vote has turned increasingly violent. There have been widespread reports of beatings, torture and killings of opposition activists.
Rights activists have warned since last week that the cargo of the ship, owned by the China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company, was part of Mugabe's plan to intensify his crackdown. Union groups throughout southern Africa have refused to unload the ship or deliver its contents to landlocked Zimbabwe. Authorities in Angola and Mozambique have said the ship is not welcome.
Zimbabwe officials have repeatedly defended their right to have the weaponry delivered but have been frustrated so far.
"The ship has become such a rallying point," said Nicole Fritz, director of the Southern Africa Litigation Center, which has led the legal assault on the shipment. "It's become a focus of so many people who have been frustrated about what's happening in Zimbabwe."
U.S. officials have been among those pressuring southern African nations to block the delivery.
"We don't think it's appropriate at this point, given the political upheaval that's occurring in Zimbabwe, for anyone to be adding extra tinder to that situation by providing additional weapons to Zimbabwe security forces," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters Tuesday. "We're pleased to see that many countries in the region refused to either accept this vessel in their ports or to offload those weapons."
The An Yue Jiang first ran into trouble last week when news reports in South Africa revealed its contents, including 3 million rounds for AK-47 assault rifles. Zimbabwe's military has been chronically short of ammunition -- and most other basic supplies -- in recent years as the nation's economy has collapsed and inflation has surged past 100,000 percent.
A court in Durban, South Africa, where the ship initially docked, blocked its unloading in a temporary order that rights activists are seeking to make permanent. Union workers have been at least as crucial in hindering delivery. The ship is also reported to be low on fuel.
Lloyd's Marine Intelligence Unit said in a news release Monday evening, however, that the ship still had numerous options. There are 32 ports capable of handling the load south of the equator in Africa, it said. The ship also has six cranes, making it possible to transfer cargo at sea. The news release said that the Chinese Ocean Shipping (Group) Company had two ships in the area capable of taking the weapons on board. An airlift might also be possible.
The circuitous movements of the An Yue Jiang fixated South Africans as the ship moved north toward Mozambique, then back toward Angola before disappearing from tracking mechanisms. Its reappearance Tuesday evening, along with the Chinese Foreign Ministry's comments, spurred cautious optimism that the weapons will never reach the Zimbabwean military.
Correspondent Jill Drew in Beijing contributed to this report.