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Syria-Bound Russian Ship Turns Back

LONDON - A Russian-operated ship said to be carrying military helicopters to Syria appears to have turned back after its British insurer removed coverage for the vessel, U.K. officials said Tuesday.

Britain's Foreign Office said the ship, the MV Alaed, changed course in Europe after news reports emerged about its alleged contents. Earlier, the Foreign Office confirmed it was aware that a ship carrying a consignment of refurbished Russian-made attack helicopters was heading to Syria.

The ship has "turned back now apparently toward Russia," Foreign Secretary William Hague told British lawmakers in Parliament. The vessel appeared to have been avoiding UK territorial waters and EU territorial waters, his ministry added.

The news came after the U.K.-based insurer Standard Club said it removed insurance coverage for the ship owner when it became aware it was carrying munitions, a clear breach of its rules.

Britain has joined the United States and other countries in pressing Russia to halt arms shipments to President Bashar Assad's regime. Opposition groups say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests against Assad's regime. A ferocious government crackdown, however, led many to take up arms and the conflict is now an armed insurgency.

Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East, and has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons industries for the last four decades, acquiring billions of dollars worth of combat jets, helicopters, missiles, armored vehicles and other military gear. Russia has also shielded Assad's regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown.

The Foreign Office said Hague had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that all defense shipments to Syria must stop.

"We are working closely with international partners to ensure that we are doing all we can to stop the Syrian regime's ability to slaughter civilians being reinforced through assistance from other countries," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

The vessel's Russian operator, Femco, refused to comment Tuesday.

The BBC reported Tuesday that the ship was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. The Foreign Office and Standard Club refused to give details of its location.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a harsh reprimand to Russia last week, saying that Moscow "dramatically" escalated the crisis in Syria by sending attack helicopters there. The State Department acknowledged later the helicopters she accused Moscow of sending were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime, but Russia was clearly annoyed, and the spat further fueled tensions between the two countries over Syria.

It was not immediately clear whether the helicopters reported to be aboard the Alaed were the ones Clinton had been referring to.

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Associated Press writers Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

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