Southern Africa ports shun ship carrying arms for Zimbabwe
Public outcries have forced a rusty Chinese cargo ship to avoid South Africa, Mozambique and Angola, leaving it at sea Tuesday with 77 tons of munitions bound for Zimbabwe, where an election crisis has reportedly turned violent.
The An Yue Jiang was carrying about 3 million rounds of Chinese ammunition, 1,500 rockets and 3,000 mortar shells. The State Department’s top Africa envoy, who is to arrive in the region today, will urge governments to hold firm against the shipment.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa this week broke ranks with African colleagues, pressing them to deny the ship access to their ports and prodding landlocked Zimbabwe to release the results of its March 29 presidential vote.
The loudest protest, however, has come from ordinary Africans, with trade unions, human rights groups, churches and local news media banding together to track the ship’s travels.
Unions whose dockhands refused last week to unload the munitions in Durban, South Africa, are asking workers in other countries to do the same. A pro-democracy group in Angola is staking out the harbors of that country for any possible clandestine arrival. And human rights workers in South Africa are using a variety of information, including insurance company data and marine rescue agency reports, to keep tabs on the boat.
“Stopping this ship has come to symbolize the solidarity of southern Africans with the people of Zimbabwe,” said Nicole Fritz, a human rights lawyer in Johannesburg who helped block the arms from transiting South Africa on the grounds that they violated state guidelines on shipping lethal weapons to governments accused of political repression.
A Chinese government spokeswoman told the BBC on Tuesday that the An Yue Jiang’s owners were considering recalling their vessel to China. But Fritz’s group, the Southern Africa Litigation Center, said Tuesday night that the ship was still about 60 miles south of Cape Town.
Zimbabwe has denounced the grass-roots blockade of the ammunition shipment. It says the purchase was made before the elections and is intended for legitimate self-defense purposes.
A watchdog group called the Zimbabwe Assn. of Doctors for Human Rights reported last week that more than 150 people had been treated in hospitals after receiving severe beatings by security forces and pro-government militias.
Zimbabwe’s main opposition party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, claimed victory in last month’s presidential vote. Tsvangirai says President Robert Mugabe is withholding the results in order to cling to power.