BEIJING (AP) -- A shipment of Chinese weapons headed for troubled Zimbabwe will be returned to China because there is no way to deliver it to the landlocked country in southern Africa, China said Thursday.
Countries neighboring Zimbabwe refused to allow the Chinese freighter An Yue Jiang to dock at their ports. That followed heavy pressure from African unions, churches and human rights groups, bolstered by behind-the-scenes pressure from the United States.
Critics argue that providing Zimbabwe's security forces with the weapons could worsen attacks reportedly being made on opponents of President Robert Mugabe amid a political standoff over a contested election.
The Chinese shipment raised a chorus of demands for an international arms embargo against Zimbabwe.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said that "any state sending new arms and ammunition into this highly repressive environment could be complicit in Zimbabwe's human rights abuses."
The head of South Africa's Lutheran Church, Bishop Zephania Kameeta, agreed, saying it would be "committing sin" to allow weapons to reach Zimbabwe "in this highly volatile and tense situation."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu called the shipment a purely commercial transaction that broke no laws and accused critics of wanting to "create conflict between China and African countries."
But she conceded the shipment could not be unloaded.
"This cargo was not unloaded because the Zimbabwe side was unable to take delivery as scheduled," Jiang said. She said the contract for the weapons was signed last year and was unrelated to the current strife over Zimbabwe's March 29 presidential election.
In a separate development, South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance party said it had information that China planned to send a second shipment of weapons to Zimbabwe by air, scheduled to arrive Saturday.
The party urged China to halt that shipment until a new government is in place in Zimbabwe. It also urged the neighboring countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia to deny overflight permission to cargo planes from China carrying arms destined for Zimbabwe.
There is no international arms embargo against Zimbabwe, and China is one of the southern African nation's main trade partners and allies.
China's global weapons exports are considered tiny in dollar terms, although Beijing is a principal exporter of cheap, simple small arms that are blamed for fueling violence in Sudan and other parts of Africa.
The timing of the arms shipment further cast a spotlight on China's ties with Africa, where its aggressive business practices and support for authoritarian regimes have drawn increased scrutiny.