By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - United Nations experts have called for the world body to stop allowing arms for its Mali peacekeepers to be shipped through Ivory Coast after they said a load of military hardware sent by China violated the country's arms embargo.
In a confidential report presented to the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee on Friday, the panel of experts said the shipment of weapons, ammunition and hardware which passed through Ivory Coast in November lacked proper permission and said China had understated its actual size by 21 metric tons (23.15 tons).
In response to Reuters' questions, Beijing denied it had misstated the shipment's size and said all the equipment was correctly received by its contingent, rejecting the experts' criticism they had been unable to trace it.
Chinese troops form part of a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission being deployed to help stabilize Mali after a French-led military intervention last year drove off Islamist fighters who had seized the country's desert north.
Ivory Coast's main port of Abidjan has been a primary transit point for cargo shipped to landlocked Mali's mission, known as MINUSMA. However, the country remains under an arms embargo following a decade-long political crisis that ended in a brief civil war in 2011.
"The Group investigated and collected...various documents proving the transfer of military equipment, arms, munitions in Cote d'Ivoire without the Sanctions Committee's approval, which constitutes an arms embargo violation," said the panel's report, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
The Chinese government sent a packing list to MINUSMA specifying 3,020 kg of military equipment in the shipment. The U.N. mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) requested approval from Ivorian authorities to transit the cargo through the country, despite the lack of prior approval by the sanctions committee.
The U.N. panel of experts, however, said the bill of lading for the consignment stated that three of the 202 containers carried 8,484 kg of military goods, 5,202 kg of rifles and bullets and 10,721 kg of ammunition.
A bill of lading is a document issued by the shipping company and serves as a receipt for the goods to be transported. A hazardous cargo declaration as well as a request for permission to unload the containers from the local shipping agent addressed to the director general of Abidjan port both cited the same quantities.
"The Group is concerned about the missing difference of 21,387 kg of arms, ammunitions and military equipment that are not recognized as having been delivered to MINUSMA," said the panel's report, obtained by Reuters.
UNOCI's unit charged with monitoring the embargo, IEMU, was not present when the weapons were unloaded at the port.
"Since the IEMU has no capacity to efficiently comply with security requirements...the Group believes that the transit of MINUSMA arms...through Cote d'Ivoire should not be allowed in future," the experts wrote.
The report did not say who was responsible for the violation nor did it allege the arms were intentionally diverted.
Radhia Achouri, spokeswoman for MINUSMA, said she was unable to comment as the U.N. experts' report has not been made public.
China's foreign ministry said the three containers cited by the experts contained only three metric tons of arms and ammunition while the remaining 21 metric tons were articles for daily use.
"The above arrived in its entirety in the mission area for the Chinese United Nations peacekeepers in Mali at the end of 2013 - none of it went missing," the ministry said in a emailed statement.
It said the experts had not attempted to verify this with China, and expressed its regret and concern to the group. China, which participates in several U.N. missions, has contributed 394 soldiers to the Malian force, including 169 engineers.
The U.N. investigators said they were not able to determine what happened to the shipment after it arrived in Abidjan. They traveled to the border crossing of Pogo on December 17, 2013 and were told that a shipment of MINUSMA containers had crossed into Mali but no arms or ammunition were specifically registered.
Ivory Coast Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi told Reuters the whole cargo shipment destined for the Chinese peacekeepers was transported to Mali under an Ivorian military escort.
In a letter to Koffi Koffi, MINUSMA's shipping agent Etablissement Victoire Transit (EVT) had requested the Ivorian military secure the consignment and escort it to the border. EVT also requested the shipment not be subject to the established customs transit control process.
"All of that was done. I don't know what happened after it left Ivory Coast," Koffi Koffi told Reuters. "After that, it's up to the U.N. to check. It's the U.N. that must verify what arrived."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, and Daniel Flynn in Dakar; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Angus MacSwan)