BEIJING — A Chinese ship carrying weapons for Zimbabwe's security forces that's been blocked from unloading in four African nations headed home Tuesday with its cargo still aboard.
The return of the vessel, the An Yue Jiang, is an embarrassment for China in Africa, where it has growing trade and political influence, and signaled new woes for Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader, who's fighting to retain power after disputed elections three weeks ago.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu called the sale of the weapons "a totally normal transaction" and said that their attempted delivery "has nothing to do with the latest situation in Zimbabwe."
The ship, reportedly carrying 3 million rounds of ammunition, 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades and 2,500 mortar rounds, was turned away from South Africa and Mozambique before heading toward Angola and Namibia, where it also apparently was denied entry.
Jiang said China Ocean Shipping Co., or Cosco, operates the vessel, although a company spokesman denied it.
"The Cosco company could not unload the cargo as scheduled, so they decided to carry the cargo back to China," Jiang said during a news briefing.
The state Xinhua news agency quoted Zimbabwean Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa as saying that the Chinese weapons were meant for national defense and not for use against civilians in the nation's electoral dispute.
Mugabe's political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, charged in a statement that the weapons were "clearly meant to butcher innocent civilians whose only crime is rejecting dictatorship and voting (for) change."
Mugabe's grasp on power has wavered since elections March 29 in which opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claims he beat Mugabe. Mugabe's government has delayed declaring an election result and has called a partial recount.
China's close relations with Zimbabwe date to 1980, when Mugabe's forces won independence from Britain. Beijing is now Harare's only major international ally.
China has provided Zimbabwe with diplomatic support, trade deals and military assistance as part of an "all-weather friendship" that's survived economic chaos in the African nation. Zimbabwe isn't under U.N. sanctions, and China breaks no laws by selling it weapons.
That other allies of China such as Angola, one of Beijing's major suppliers of foreign crude oil, would rebuff China might seem surprising.
But a scholar said that landlocked Zimbabwe's coastal neighbors saw the arrival of the weapons-laden ship as a chance to show their displeasure with Mugabe for tinkering with the elections.
"Not only are they unhappy with the election chaos but also they want to show they have some control over what gets in and gets out of Zimbabwe," said Tom Cargill, the Africa program manager at the Chatham House research center, a London-based foreign affairs research center.
Jiang lashed out at reports that the Bush administration had pressured Zimbabwe's neighbors not to accept the An Yue Jiang in their ports, saying that China's weapons trade is miniscule compared with that of the United States.
"China takes only a small portion of the world's weapons market," she said, noting research that the United States is ranked as the world's No. 1 arms merchant, Britain No. 6 and China No. 9. "Last year, we accounted for only 2 percent of world exports while the U.S. took 30 percent, so the U.S. is the world's biggest exporter."
The 20-year-old vessel was anchored off the South African port of Durban for four days, but dockworkers refused to unload the cargo because of concerns that the weapons would be used against Mugabe's political opposition. Over the weekend, a South African court ruled that the weapons couldn't be transported across the country to Zimbabwe. So the An Yue Jiang set sail.
Jiang said the arms deal was arranged with Zimbabwe late last year, well before the election crisis.