China said today a shipment of weapons bound for Zimbabwe would be recalled after South African port workers refused to unload it and amid a call from Britain to prevent arms flowing into the troubled country.
Zambia, which chairs the Southern African Development Community grouping, had urged regional states to bar the An Yue Jiang from entering their waters, saying the weapons could deepen Zimbabwe's election crisis.
"To my knowledge, the Chinese company has decided to recall the ship and the relevant goods bound for Zimbabwe," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference.
She said the reason was the same she gave on Tuesday - that the ship had been unable to unload its goods.
But she defended the shipment in the face of criticism from New York-based Human Rights Watch, which said that any state that sent arms and ammunition to Zimbabwe could be complicit in the country's rights abuses.
"In the field of conventional weapons, we have trade relations with some countries. These are consistent with our laws and with Security Council resolutions and China's international obligations," Jiang said.
"We have been very responsible and cautious with regards to weapons exports and we have a very strict management system for weapons exports."
No results have been announced from Zimbabwe's 29 March presidential vote, while the outcome of a parliamentary poll is also in doubt because of partial recounts.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says it won the elections and the delay in releasing the results extends a deadlock in which the MDC says 10 members have been killed.
Jiang also gave a spirited defence of China's trade with Africa, following a European Parliament resolution that criticised its shipping weapons to states including Sudan and Chad, and also said investments without conditions in poorly governed countries could perpetuate human rights abuses.
"They ignored the facts and made groundless statements, which is totally irresponsible," Jiang said of the resolution.
The European Union already has an arms embargo against Zimbabwe, part of sanctions in place since 2002. The embargo bars the 27 EU states from supplying arms or equipment intended for military operations.
China's booming trade and investment with Africa, whose natural resources it covets to feed its expanding economy, has come under fire from critics who say it lends without regard to standards on governance or corruption.
Others, however, have praised it as a new and much-needed source of funds on the continent.
Jiang said China's role in Africa would be judged by the African people, not by third parties.
"We respect the right of African countries to chose their own political system and path of social development," she said.