United Nations weapons experts have raised the alarm after tonnes of weapons that were sent by China to its peacekeepers in Mali allegedly disappeared in transit in Ivory Coast, which is under a UN arms embargo.
China has a close relationship with the government in Ivory Coast, funding scores of development projects and granting billions in low-cost loans last year. But Ivory Coast is banned from buying weapons as a result of a decade-long political crisis and brutal 2011 civil war.
In a confidential report presented to the UN Security Council sanctions committee on Friday, the UN experts said the world body should stop allowing arms for its Mali peacekeepers to be shipped through Ivory Coast as a result of the disappearance of 21 tonnes of Chinese military equipment, including 16 tonnes of rifles and ammunition.
It said the shipment passed through Ivory Coast in November but lacked proper permission. The report also said China had understated the shipment's true size by the margin of the missing 21 tonnes.
However, 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 UN peacekeeping mission being deployed to help stabilise Mali after a French-led military intervention last year drove off Islamist fighters who had seized the country's 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.
"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.
The Chinese government sent a packing list to MINUSMA specifying 3,020kg of military equipment in the shipment. The UN 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 UN panel of experts, however, said the bill of lading for the consignment stated that three of the 202 containers carried 8,484kg of military goods, 5,202kg of rifles and bullets and 10,721kg of ammunition.
"The Group is concerned about the missing difference of 21,387kg of arms, ammunitions and military equipment that are not recognised as having been delivered to MINUSMA," said the panel's report.
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.
China's foreign ministry said the three containers cited by the experts contained only three tonnes of arms and ammunition, while the remaining 21 tonnes 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 an e-mailed 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 UN missions, has contributed 394 soldiers to the Malian force, including 169 engineers.
The UN investigators said they were not able to determine what happened to the shipment after it arrived in Abidjan.
Ivory Coast Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said the whole cargo shipment destined for the Chinese peacekeepers was transported to Mali under an Ivorian military escort.