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Dock Workers Refuse to Unload Chinese Arms Shipment to Zimbabwe

South African port and truck workers are refusing to move weapons from a ship that docked in their country on the way to landlocked, politically troubled Zimbabwe, union officials said Friday.

The umbrella Congress of South African Trade Unions applauded the stance by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, and reiterated its calls for Zimbabwean electoral officials to release the results of March 29 presidential elections.

The An Yue Jiang, a Chinese ship carrying the weapons, was anchored just outside Durban harbor after receiving permission late Wednesday to dock. Its arrival earlier this week has increased concern about tensions in Zimbabwe, where the ruling party and the opposition are locked in a dispute over presidential elections.

A South African government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, had confirmed that there were weapons on board but gave no further details.

"This vessel must return to China with the arms on board, as South Africa cannot be seen to be facilitating the flow of weapons into Zimbabwe at a time where there is a political dispute and a volatile situation," the union congress said in a statement Friday.

China is one of Zimbabwe's main trade partners and allies.

A day earlier, South African government spokesman Themba Maseko said officials will not intervene to stop the shipment from reaching Zimbabwe. He said that despite the "dire" situation in South Africa's neighbor to the north, as long as administrative papers were in order, South Africa cannot intervene.

He said there was presently no trade embargo against Zimbabwe.

The union move could add to pressure on President Thabo Mbeki to take a harder line on Zimbabwe. Mbeki has argued that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is accused of withholding election results, is unlikely to respond to a confrontational approach.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, the archbishop of Durban and spokesman of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, called Friday for the South African government "not to allow any more arms and munitions to enter Zimbabwe through South Africa until an acceptable solution is found to the present situation." The bishops also repeated appeals for an international mediator to intervene in Zimbabwe.

The Southern Africa Litigation Center, an independent human rights group, said Friday it has asked a court to intervene to stop the arms from being transported on to Zimbabwe.

"Given the current situation in Zimbabwe, with increasing accounts of widespread attacks on Zimbabwe's civilian population by government forces, it is hard to imagine clearer circumstances in which South African authorities were obliged to refuse the grant of any conveyance permit," director Nicole Fritz said in a statement. She added in an interview that if South Africa allows the arms to reach Zimbabwe, it would undermine Mbeki's standing as a mediator between Zimbabwe's ruling and opposition parties.

Mary Robinson, the former U.N. human rights chief, applauded the unions for taking a stand.

"How positive it is that ordinary dockers have refused to allow that boat to go further," Robinson said during a conference in Senegal on governance in Africa. "They as individuals have taken the responsibility. Because they believe it's not right."

She added she found the situation in Zimbabwe "distressing."

"Behind the scenes we are extremely concerned and trying to see what can be done," she said.

Speaking at the same conference, Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born billionaire who disburses a US$5 million annual award for African leaders who promote good governance, said Mugabe's counterparts on the continent haven't done enough to pressure him to release the final tally.

"I don't want to criticize any one African leader in particular," he said when asked about Mbeki's role. "But more should have been done."