A Chinese ship carrying weapons destined for Zimbabwe left the South African harbor where it was docked Friday and was headed for Mozambique, according to an independent human rights group monitoring the vessel.
The ship left Durban harbor early Friday evening soon after a high court ordered that the controversial cargo not be moved, said Nicole Fritz, director of the Southern Africa Litigation Center, which asked the court to intervene to stop the arms from being transported on to Zimbabwe.
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.
Claims of increasing violenceFritz said the Durban High Court granted the order for the ship's conveyance permit to be suspended and that there could be "no movement of the containers in which the arms kept and no movement of the ship."
However, lawyers were told by the Sheriff of the High Court that when an attempt to serve the order on the ship was made, the vessel was already sailing away, she said.
"It was called back but made no acknowledgment of the order," she said, adding that other sources had confirmed that the ship was headed for neighboring Mozambique.
Fritz said they were pleased that the order had been granted, but were concerned that there was "still ammunition on board a ship destined for Zimbabwe."
"It's hundreds of mortar grenades and bullets and we are concerned about how they are going to be used," she said, adding that her organization planned to pursue the matter with Mozambican authorities.
Earlier Friday Fritz raised concerns about the situation in Zimbabwe and increasing accounts of widespread attacks on Zimbabwe's civilian population by government forces.
Also Friday South African port and truck workers said they would refuse to offload the weapons from the ship on the way to landlocked, politically troubled Zimbabwe.
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.
"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.
China is one of Zimbabwe's main trade partners and allies.
Cardinal makes anti-weapon plea
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 added 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.
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 $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."