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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Syria seeks release of Cyprus-held air defence systems

A Syrian government delegation was in Cyprus on Friday seeking the release of Syria-bound aircraft defence systems from North Korea impounded by the Mediterranean island, authorities said.

Acting on an Interpol alert for arms smuggling, Cyprus found truck-mounted radar systems on board the Panamanian-flagged Gregorio 1 last week. It was billed as meteorological equipment on the ship's manifest.

There are no U.N. restriction on weapons supplies to Syria
-- widely regarded as a conduit for arms to the Lebanese Hezbollah group. However, Cyprus has refused to release the cargo because the papers were not in order.

Releasing the shipment, now under arrest by customs, would require a new export licence. "The whole matter is controlled by the law of the land, and as things stand right now it is in the hands of the attorney general," said Antonis Michaelides, the Cypriot commerce, industry and tourism minister.

"This ministry can be involved if there is a request for the re-export of these items which we would examine," Michaelides told Reuters.

Until Friday afternoon such a request had not been filed.

Privately, the island's attorney general met a Syrian delegation on Friday.

"There was a visit to the attorney general's office. From what I know there was full accord between them," Michaelides said.

Discovery of the shipment put the Mediterranean island in a bind at the risk of upsetting friendly relations with Damascus.

In addition to the apparent discrepancy in paperwork, Cyprus says it should have been informed about any military hardware passing through its territorial waters.

The Gregorio 1, which experts say has changed name and flag five times over the past five years, was detained when it called at a Cypriot port for refuelling just after visiting Port Said.

It is not clear why the vessel would have required refuelling in Cyprus for the relatively short journey between Port Said and the Syrian port of Latakia, which was its final destination.

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