JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A shipment of weapons to Zimbabwe may be returned to China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Tuesday, after the troubled southern African nation's neighbors prevented the cargo from being unloaded.
The Chinese freighter arrived in South Africa last week, and human rights groups and others said they feared the mortar grenades and bullets onboard could be used by President Robert Mugabe's regime to clamp down on its opposition.
Zimbabwean church leaders issued a joint statement Tuesday calling for international intervention, saying people were being tortured, abducted and some murdered in a campaign against opposition supporters.
A South African group persuaded a judge to bar the weapons from transiting through the country to landlocked Zimbabwe, and the An Yue Jiang then sailed away from South Africa. Private groups and government officials in Mozambique, Angola and Namibia also objected to the weapons, though Namibia said the ship could refuel there if necessary.
"As far as I know, the carrier is now considering carrying back the cargo," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
Although Jiang offered no details, the move appeared to indicate a backdown in the face of refusals by Zimbabwe's neighbors to allow the weapons to be offloaded and shipped through their territories.
The State Department said it had urged countries in southern Africa — notably South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and Namibia — not to allow the ship to dock or unload. It also said it had asked the Chinese government to recall the vessel and not to make further weapons shipments to Zimbabwe until the postelection crisis is resolved.
"Right now clearly is not the time that we would want to see anyone putting additional weapons or additional material into this system when the situation is so unsettled and when we have seen real and visible instances of abuses committed by the security forces," deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.
"We're pleased to see that a number of countries in the region ... have decided not to let this ship either dock or offload," he said. Casey added that China had been encouraged in a message delivered by U.S. diplomats in Beijing "to halt this shipment" and "to refrain from making additional shipments."
Zimbabwe's government has refused to publish the results of the presidential election held more than three weeks ago, and the opposition says that is part of a ploy to steal the vote. There are reports of increasing violence against the opposition.
China is one of Zimbabwe's main trade partners and allies, and there is no international arms embargo against Zimbabwe. But China's relationship with Mugabe is often pointed to as an example of its willingness to deal with authoritarian regimes in order to secure commodities and markets in Africa.
Although China's global weapons exports are considered tiny in dollar terms, especially compared to the United States, Beijing is a principle exporter of cheap, simple small arms blamed for fueling violence in Sudan and other parts of Africa.
Patrick Craven, spokesman for the South African union congress that had helped lead the campaign against the ship, called it a "historic victory" that he hoped would encourage Zimbabweans and lead to more grassroots campaigns against Mugabe.
"So far the governments have clearly been lagging behind the people," Craven said. "We're hoping now they will wake up."
Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, said he was awaiting more details on the report the ship may be returning to China without offloading the weapons.
"It would be pleasing to the people of Zimbabwe to note that there has been solidarity on the continent to stop the arming of the (Mugabe) regime at the expense of the people," Chamisa said.
"Instead of importing guns, we should be importing syringes, (AIDS medicine), books for kids. We should be importing food for the people," Chamisa said. "We are not at war. If anything we have to have a war against hunger, poverty, a lack of democracy, dictatorship."
But Mugabe's Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said his country had the right to acquire arms from legitimate sources.
"We are not a rebel country," he told The Associated Press.
Also Tuesday, Zimbabwean church leaders issued a joint statement calling for international intervention to help end the country's election crisis, saying people were being tortured, abducted and some murdered in a campaign against opposition supporters.
The leaders of all church denominations in Zimbabwe also called for the immediate announcement of results from the March 29 presidential election.
Chamisa, the opposition spokesman, said he had visited a hospital in southeastern Zimbabwe Monday and seen a pregnant woman who had been stabbed. He said he also saw an 85-year-old women whose legs had been broken. He attributed both cases to postelection violence.
Mugabe's officials, though, said such reports could not be confirmed, and said that if there had been postelection violence, the opposition might have been to blame.
"They are saying that we are sponsoring acts of politically motivated violence and anyone will be forgiven for thinking that they are the ones who are fomenting genocide in Zimbabwe," the state-owned Herald newspaper quoted the justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, as telling reporters Monday.
For the first time in Mugabe's 28-year rule, the opposition defeated his ruling ZANU-PF party in the first count of last month's parliamentary vote.
But electoral officials began recounting ballots Saturday for 23 legislative seats, most won by opposition candidates, and the ZANU-PF party needs just nine seats to reclaim a majority. The state-run Herald newspaper reported Monday that officials need longer than the three days originally planned and could take all week.