Monday 5 December 2016

No Spanish stop-off for Putin's warship fleet

Roland Oliphant Moscow

Published 27/10/2016 | 02:30

Russia’s President Putin. Photo: Getty Images
Russia’s President Putin. Photo: Getty Images

Spain's government has announced that the flotilla of Russian warships heading towards Syria will not be refuelling at the Spanish port of Ceuta after an international outcry.

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In a statement issued by its foreign ministry, Spain, a Nato member, said it had given clearance for stopovers to be made by three Russian ships in the North African port of Ceuta between October 28 and November 2.

A child is treated at a make-shift hospital after shelling on the rebel-held town of Douma yesterday. Photo: Abd Doumany/Getty Images
A child is treated at a make-shift hospital after shelling on the rebel-held town of Douma yesterday. Photo: Abd Doumany/Getty Images

But, the statement continued, "in the light of reports on the possibility that these ships were to carry out supporting tasks for military attacks on the Syrian city of Aleppo, the foreign ministry called the Russian federation's embassy in Madrid for clarification".

According to the statement, the Russian embassy "withdrew the request for stopovers for these ships".

Politicians and military figures had earlier condemned the support for Russia's warships from a Nato member, while the head of the alliance indicated Madrid should rethink the pit stop.

Warships from an eight-strong group led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov were expected take on fuel and supplies from the port of Spain's North African enclave, after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar yesterday morning, Spanish papers reported.

Nato officials expected the flotilla to then sail onwards to the eastern Mediterranean and escalate air strikes on the only major rebel-held city remaining in Syria, where 275,000 people are trapped.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato's secretary general, said the carrier group, which passed through the English Channel last week, could be used to bomb civilians in the city.

He said: "It's for each nation to decide whether these ships can get supplies and be fuelled in different harbours along the route towards the eastern Mediterranean."

Russia is reinforcing its Baltic fleet in Kaliningrad with two small warships armed with long-range cruise missiles to counter what it sees as a worrying Nato build-up in the region, Russia's daily 'Izvestia' reported.

There was no official confirmation from Moscow, but the report will raise tensions in the Baltic already heightened since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and is likely to cause particular consternation in Poland and Lithuania which share land borders with Kaliningrad.

The reported deployment comes at a time when Nato is planning its biggest military build-up on Russia's borders since the Cold War to counter Moscow. Russian military analysts said the move looked like a direct response to Nato.

Furthermore, the Russian defence ministry said earlier this month that two ships, the Serpukhov and the Zeleny Dol, had left their Black Sea base to join Russia's naval force in the Mediterranean.

The Buyan-class corvettes are armed with nuclear-capable Kalibr cruise missiles, known by the Nato codename Sizzler, which the Russian military says have a range of at least 1,500km.

Though variants of the missile are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the ships are believed to be carrying conventional warheads.

Izvestia said Russia's Baltic fleet would probably receive a further three such small warships armed with the same missiles by the end of 2020.

It said the Baltic fleet's coastal defences would also be beefed up with the Bastion and Bal land-based missile systems. The Bastion is a mobile defence system armed with two anti-ship missiles with a range of up to 300km. The Bal anti-ship missile has a similar range.

Sweden's defence minister said his country was worried by the presence of the warships in the Baltic Sea, complaining the move was likely to keep tension in the region high.

Sweden's military confirmed the two vessels had entered the Baltic, but declined to give further information. Russia's defence ministry was not immediately available for comment.

"This is...worrying and is not something that helps to reduce tensions in our region," defence minister Peter Hultqvist told Sweden's national TT news agency.

"This affects all the countries round the Baltic."

Swedish media said the Kalibr missiles had the range to hit targets across the Nordic region.

The Russian defence ministry said in August that the two corvettes had been used to fire cruise missiles at militants in Syria.

Earlier this month, Russia moved nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles into Kaliningrad leading to protests from Lithuania and Poland. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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