Russian ship believed to be carrying weapons to Syria turns back

LONDON — A Russian ship said to be carrying refurbished attack helicopters to Syria turned back after its cargo became known and a British company stripped the vessel of its insurance, the British foreign secretary said Tuesday.

The insurer Standard Club reportedly canceled its coverage upon learning that the cargo ship Alaed was apparently carrying munitions to Syria. British news reports indicated the ship was off the coast of Scotland at the time, believed to be en route to Syria, when it changed course.

“I’m pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back, apparently toward Russia,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons. “We discourage anyone else from supplying arms to Syria.”

The incident was the latest in an acrimonious dispute between Russia and the West about arms deliveries to Syria, a longtime weapons client of Moscow. Russian officials have said that any munitions sent to Syria are defensive arms not for use against protesters.

But U.N. monitors in Syria have confirmed the use of attack helicopters against forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton charged last week that Russian shipments of attack helicopters were en route to Syria and could dramatically escalate the conflict there. The State Department later acknowledged that the helicopters she referred to were not new aircraft but refurbished ones that Syria already owned and were being sent back after repairs.

Still, Russian officials were furious over Clinton’s comments and accused Washington of sending arms to the region that can be used against protesters.

United Nations officials said Tuesday that a faltering U.N.-brokered peace plan remained the best hope to stop the bloodshed in Syria, despite escalating violence and the suspension of an observer mission in the nation. The head of the monitoring mission, Gen. Robert Mood, briefed the U.N. Security Council in a closed-door session at the world body’s headquarters in New York.

“There is no other game in town,” Herve Ladsous, head of U.N. peacekeeping, told reporters after the briefing. “There is no Plan B.”

There had been some speculation that the Security Council could move to end the observer mission, which includes about 300 monitors in Syria. But Mood held out the possibility that the observers, currently confined to their compounds, could resume patrols.

The observer mission is regarded as a key component of the six-point peace plan hammered out by special U.N. envoy Kofi Annan. Both sides have violated a cease-fire, but Annan has declared that Assad has the “first responsibility” to initiate a truce.

Assad says his government is battling “terrorists” and a “foreign conspiracy” in the 15-month conflict, which has cost more than 10,000 lives. Opponents say his government has mounted a ruthless crackdown on dissent and have called on Assad to step down.

On Monday, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Mexico, issued a joint appeal calling for the “immediate cessation of the violence” in Syria and endorsing “political transition to a democratic pluralist political system.” But the two leaders gave no indication how those elusive goals would be achieved, even as daily reports of violence and killing continued to emanate from Syria. Moscow has refused to join Washington and its allies in calling on Assad to step down.

Syrian authorities said Tuesday that they were ready to comply with a U.N. appeal to evacuate trapped citizens from the besieged central city of Homs “without preconditions,” the official state news agency reported.

But the government blamed “armed terrorist groups,” its standard depiction of rebel fighters, for blocking civilians’ exit and using residents as “human shields,” the Syrian state news site said.

Opposition activists accuse the Syrian military of repeatedly shelling civilian districts in Homs and elsewhere. Rebels say they are protecting civilians from a military onslaught.

Chu reported from London and McDonnell from Beirut.