Russia  confirmed for the first time today that a cargo ship forced to turn back from British waters was carrying attack helicopters for Syria and said it would now sail under the Russian flag.

The ship, which headed back to Russia after its British insurer withdrew cover, would return to the port of Murmansk on June 23 to sail under the Russian flag rather than that of the Caribbean island of Curacao, said foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.

"The ship Alaed sailed on June 11 with a cargo including Mi-25 helicopters which are the property of the Syrian side," he told reporters.

The ship's cargo had greatly troubled the West and Arab foes of President Bashar al-Assad, who have repeatedly called on Moscow to halt all military cooperation with Syria due to the government crackdown on the opposition.

"When it was moving into the Atlantic from the North Sea, the owner was informed that insurance cover had ceased," Lukashevich said.

"In order to prevent a possible seizure of the ship, the decision was taken for it to dock in the (Russian Arctic Circle) port of Murmansk where it is expected on Saturday to be re-flagged under the Russian flag" he added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also confirmed the nature of the cargo, saying the ship had carried "three helicopters that had been repaired" by Russia for Syria.

He told the Echo Moscow radio in an interview the Alaed had also been carrying air defence equipment but gave no further details.

British media had reported the ship, owned by Russian cargo line Femco, had picked up the helicopters from the Russian port of Kaliningrad, where they had been sent for servicing and repairs.

Lukashevich said that Russia would keep up its military-technical cooperation with Syria but would refrain from delivering arms that could be used against peaceful demonstrators.

"We would like to urge other countries who deliver military technology to this and other regions where there is a risk of its use against peaceful civilians to follow the example of Russia," he added.

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