By Erik Kirschbaum and Olzhas Auyezov
BERLIN/KIEV (Reuters) - A German shipping company ordered its vessel Atlantic Cruiser to turn its transponder back on Monday after the ship suspected of smuggling Iranian arms to Syria switched off the tracking system because its crew feared attack, the firm said on Monday.
The W. Bockstiegel shipping company also said in a statement it had no information about any weapons on board the ship which was originally destined for Syria. Sending weapons to Syria would be in violation of a European Union arms embargo.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian company that chartered the ship denied there were arms on board and said its cargo was civilian goods.
"The shipping company has no current knowledge that the ship's cargo contains anything other than what was described in the documentation as civilian goods," the Emden-based shipping company said in a statement, its first comments on the issue.
The German company said it ordered the ship, which was chartered to a Ukraine-based company, not to continue its journey until questions about its cargo could be cleared up. It said it instructed the crew to turn its transponder back on.
"Apparently, for their own protection, the crew deactivated the automatic identification system (AIS) to prevent the ship from being attacked," the statement said. "The AIS was later reactivated by instruction from the shipping company."
The German government has been investigating reports that the ship was en route to Syria carrying Iranian weapons. The Ukraine-based company, White Whale Shipping, had declared its cargo as "pumps and the like".
Der Spiegel news magazine reported the ship had loaded the cargo in Djibouti this week and changed course for Iskenderun in Turkey on Friday when the cargo was at risk of being uncovered.
The ship stopped about 80 km (50 miles) southwest of the Syrian port of Tartus, its initial destination, it said.
According to maritime tracking data, it last appears at around 0900 GMT on Monday about 100 km off the coast of Syria and appeared to be heading towards Turkey.
The German company said goods were loaded on the ship in Mumbai, India and it was destined for Syria, Turkey and Montenegro. A portion of the goods were off-loaded at Djibouti and no new goods were taken on board there, it said.
Its crew members inspected the top of the cargo that it could open and found only cable drums and tubes.
Western sanctions imposed on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad include an arms embargo and a ban on importing Syrian oil into the European Union.
The German government said there are still unanswered questions about the ship's cargo.
"There are a lot of questions to be cleared up," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman on Monday in Berlin. He added the ship would not sail to Syria but instead to a safe harbor elsewhere, where its cargo can be inspected.
In Kiev, the firm leasing the ship denied the accusations that arms are on board, Ukrainian TV network Channel 5 reported.
Olexander Varvarenko, executive director of Varamar, which acts as the agent for White Whale Shipping, said there were no weapons on board.
"The vessel was transporting ... cargo meant for a construction project on the Syrian territory," he told Channel 5. "The cargo is not dangerous, it has nothing to do with either arms or the military, it has no military use."
Varvarenko said the vessel was now awaiting orders either from the Ukrainian company or from its German owners.
Djibouti port authorities have also denied reports that the vessel had loaded arms there.
Saad Omar Guelleh, the chief executive officer of the Port of Djibouti, confirmed the Atlantic Cruiser had docked in the Red Sea port between April 3 and April 7 but said nothing had been loaded onto the vessel.
"(The Atlantic Cruiser) only off-loaded five containers carrying civilian materials destined for Ethiopia," Guelleh said.
"No ship carrying weapons for Syria has passed through Djibouti," he said, adding the port authorities rigidly obeyed United Nations resolutions.
(Additional reporting by Abdourahim Arteh in Djibouti; Editing by Jon Hemming)