By WILL STEWART
Russia is heading for a diplomatic stand-off with Britain over a cargo ship carrying helicopter gunships destined for Syria, which is accompanied by the Russian navy.
The Russian MV Alaed, which is transporting three Mi-25 attack helicopters and air defence systems, is sailing south of Norway followed at a distance of 50 nautical miles by the four navy ships.
Last month, Britain dramatically halted the Alaed off the coast of Scotland by withdrawing its London-based insurance cover, citing an EU ban on arms deliveries to the government in Damascus.
Foreign Secretary William Hague protested to Moscow and Prime Minister David Cameron is understood to have considered storming the ship before it returned to the Arctic port of Murmansk.
But the Alaed set sail again last week, this time under a Russian flag rather than one from the Caribbean island of Curacao, which means any attempt to board it could trigger an international incident.
In order to reach Syria, the vessel will have to skirt round British waters.
A top Russian naval source yesterday confirmed that a formal order was expected soon for the Russian naval ships to provide a close escort for the Alaed.
The source at the Russian Navy Main Staff said: ‘I hope that no one will be unleashing World War Three because of it. We have not yet been ordered to escort the ship, but understand such an order can come at any time. The operation has already been planned.’ He refused to give further details of the operation.
Officially, the Alaed is now bound for the Russian naval port of Baltiysk in the Baltic, and then to St Petersburg before sailing to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.
But Russian officials have repeatedly made clear that the final destination of the cargo is Syria.
Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, the deputy head of Russia’s military technical co-operation agency, warned at the Farnborough Airshow last week: ‘The fleet will be sent on task to guarantee the safety of our ships, to prevent anyone interfering with them in the event of a blockade.’
Moscow has insisted that it is not bound by EU restrictions and that, in any case, the helicopters would not be used against civilians.
It insists the ship has every right within international law to deliver the cargo, fulfilling a 2009 contract to repair the attack helicopters.
Last night, a Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘We’re aware of reports that the MV Alaed is on the move, but its final destination is not clear.’