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Moscow Times
August 20, 2009
Contradictions Cloud the Arctic Sea Case
By Nikolaus von Twickel, Alexandra Odynova / The Moscow Times

Two days after the lumber freighter the Arctic Sea resurfaced off the West African coast, questions mounted about the ship’s mysterious hijacking, and national media were abuzz with speculation about what its real cargo was.

The Defense Ministry said Wednesday that eight hijackers, captured on the ship near the island nation of Cape Verde on Monday, had threatened to blow up the ship if their ransom demands were not met.

The men threw their weapons overboard when the Arctic Sea was approached by a Russian anti-submarine frigate that had been dispatched to search for the ship, Interfax reported, citing an unidentified ministry spokesperson.

When Navy officials searched the ship, they found bags with ammunition and explosives, the spokesperson added.

The Arctic Sea, a Maltese-registered cargo ship with a 15-member Russian crew and a load of sawn timber, caused a global media sensation when it seemed to disappear in the Atlantic last month after a mysterious attack in the Baltic Sea.

The lumber’s value has been put at $1.8 million, a sum that hardly justifies an attack that would amount to the most blatant act of sea banditry in European waters in centuries.

Yet the official version of what transpired is fraught with inconsistencies, prompting observers to suggest that Russian authorities are trying to cover up a smuggling or trafficking operation.

When Swedish police first said the ship had been hijacked near the island of Gotland on July 24, they cited the crew as saying masked men had bound and beat them before fleeing in a high-speed boat.

Yet Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Monday that the same hijackers ­ four Estonians, two Latvians and two Russians ­ were found on the ship off West Africa and they surrendered without a shot being fired.

One possible explanation for this contradiction is a statement issued by the European Commission last Friday that said the ship had “supposedly” been attacked twice, the first time off the Swedish coast and then off the Portuguese coast.

Reached by telephone Wednesday, a commission spokesman refused to elaborate on the statement.

The EU also said earlier that “from information currently available, it would seem that these acts … have nothing in common with ‘traditional’ acts of piracy or armed robbery at sea.”

Further complicating the picture are Swedish media reports suggesting that the Arctic Sea was hiding a second, smaller vessel while sailing off Sweden’s east coast.

Data from an automatic vessel tracking system showed that the Arctic Sea’s crew constantly tried to hide one side of the ship from being visible to other ships in the vicinity, the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, citing a Swedish coast guard official, reported on its web site Wednesday.

Also, Malta’s Maritime Authority acknowledged Tuesday that the ship “had never really disappeared,” seemingly confirming a claim by Moscow’s NATO representative Dmitry Rogozin that disinformation “was used intentionally in order not to hamper the military’s work.”

Speaking by telephone from Brussels, a NATO spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the Western alliance had used its tracking system to assist Moscow in finding the ship.

Yet Finnish police said Wednesday that contact with the Arctic Sea was in fact lost for some time. “We did not have full track of the ship for the whole time, but a while before the Russian operation took place we were following one that we strongly suspected to be it,” police spokesman Jan-Olof Nyholm said by telephone from Helsinki.

He added that cooperation with Russian authorities was “very constructive” and that more information on a joint investigation by Sweden, Malta and Finland would be released soon, on Monday at the latest.

Another question raised by official statements is that a ransom was demanded for the ship 10 days after the July 24 hijacking. The ship’s insurer, Renessans Strakhovaniye, said Tuesday that an unknown caller demanded $1.5 million on Aug. 3.

But Vedomosti, citing unidentified managers at various big insurers, reported Wednesday that such a demand was highly doubtful. “No serious insurance firm would ever subject itself to pirates under such circumstances,” the newspaper said.

Tarmo Kouts, an Estonian lawmaker and former commander of the Estonian armed forces, said that the “strange story” surrounding the ship could only be explained by illegal arms trade.

“You can easily hide an alley of cruise missiles under a lumber stockpile,” Kouts told the Postimees newspaper in comments published Wednesday.

Writing in Wednesday’s issue, Moscow Times columnist Yulia Latynina speculated that the vessel was secretly shipping arms via Algeria to a rogue state like Iran or Syria.

Yet other experts voiced serious doubts that the ship had been used to deliver arms.

“Everything is possible. But I do not understand why would they use such a complicated way through Finland when it is much easier to do it straight from Russia,” said Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

Meanwhile, the Finnish owners of the vessel’s cargo said they were simply shipping redwood for windows and doors in Algeria.

“We sold the timber to three customers in Algeria,” Kari Naumanen, CEO for RETS Timber in Helsinki, told The Moscow Times. He declined to give the customers’ names.

Naumanen said the police have not questioned his company about the ship and its freight.

“The ship’s owner said that after they got a new crew and fuel, the ship will continue its way,” he said, adding that the Arctic Sea is “functional, but the communication equipment needs adjustment.”

Calls to the ship’s operator, the Finnish Solchart company, went unanswered Wednesday. Naumanen said RETS Timber had worked together with Solchart for 13 years and never had any problems.

RETS Timber is a trading company, 50 percent owned by Stora Enso Timber, also from Helsinki. Stora Enso senior vice president Jorma Westlund on Wednesday denied earlier reports that his company owned the Arctic Sea’s cargo.

Meanwhile, all 15 crew members were brought to the Cape Verde island of Sal, where they were met by a group of Russian investigators, Interfax reported Wednesday, citing a military source. The report did not say whether the suspected hijackers had also been taken to the island. Relatives of the sailors complained that they could not get in touch with their loved ones. “We are learning everything from TV,” the wife of a crew member told RIA-Novosti.

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