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Ship Carrying Arms for Zimbabwe, Plays 'Cat and Mouse' with Monitors


The vessel carrying a shipment of Chinese arms destined for Zimbabwe seems to be playing cat and mouse with monitoring groups. VOA's Delia Robertson reports from our southern Africa bureau in Johannesburg, the ship was last seen at 5:00 pm local time, south of Cape Town heading for the West African coast.

Last Friday, the An Yue Jiang set sail from her anchor off the port city of Durban, just in time to avoid being served a South African High Court order. The order stipulated that the consignment of Chinese arms destined for Zimbabwe may not be transported across South African soil.

Following that, the ship sailed undetected until Tuesday when she was about about 60 kilometers south of Cape Town.

Wally Mandryk of Lloyds Marine Intelligence Unit says it is evident she did not sail directly toward Cape Town.

"There were unconfirmed reports that she was heading east, but we do not know that," he said. "Obviously the time she has taken to move from Durban to the last sighting yesterday [Tuesday], means that there is some unaccounted sailing time for this vessel."

When detected off Cape Town, Mandryk says she was heading northwest.

"Well she is headed towards west Africa, the west coast of South Africa towards Namibia, possibly Angola, if she continued on course," he added.

Under international law all vessels above a certain size carry an Automatic Identification System that must be switched on at all times.

Automatic Identification System signals are picked up on VHS receivers operated by Lloyds along the world's coastlines. The normal range is about 60 kilometers, but with favorable climatic conditions and topography, that could stretch to 160 kilometers.

Lloyds also has agents in all major seaports, of which there are 32 on the African continent, who monitor the arrival and departure of all vessels at these ports.

There has been some speculation that the An Yue Jiang may try and transfer the Zimbabwe arms shipment at sea to a sister ship belonging to the China Ocean Shipping Company, known as COSCO, already in the area. But Mandryk says such an operation is not very likely.

"There are a number of COSCO vessels in the area," he noted. "But the likelihood of actually a vessel transferring cargo at sea is a very tricky maneuver. It does require nearly perfect weather conditions and I suspect it is highly unlikely the vessel would be actually transferring cargo at sea, although theoretically it is possible."

There has been a global outcry following the revelation that China was selling the consignment of ammunition, automatic rifles and mortars to Zimbabwe.

Criticism has come from governments to human rights organizations that say they fear the weapons may be used against President Robert Mugabe's opponents in the wake of last month's election in which his party performed poorly.

Both British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Amnesty International are calling for an international arms embargo against Zimbabwe.

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