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    Central Asia
     Aug 26, 2009
The truth is adrift with the Arctic Sea
By Cristina Batog

Mystery novels pale in comparison to the case of a hijacked cargo ship, the Russian-crewed, Finnish-managed and Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea, which disappeared while sailing in Swedish national waters on the Baltic Sea.

The Russian media continue to feed public frenzy by positing wild explanations, while Russian government officials de facto support these theories by providing contradictory and scarce information about the incident. Even the simplest narration of the course of events can leave one baffled.

Thus far, it is known that between July 21 and July 23, the Arctic Sea, a 4,000-ton, 98-meter general cargo vessel, set sail from Pietarsaari, Finland, for Bejaia, Algeria. Property of Solchart Askhangelsk Ltd of Finland, the ship was operated by 15 Russian

 

nationals. It sailed under the Maltese flag, and was said to carry roughly 1.3 euros (US$1.85) million worth of timber.

On July 24, between the islands of Oland and Gotland, the vessel was attacked by a group of 10 to 12 people in black masks. They beat and bound the crew while searching for something on the vessel. According to some sources, the hijackers spent nearly 12 hours on the Arctic Sea before leaving empty-handed.

After the attack, the crew reported the incident solely to the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, which then relayed the information to Swedish authorities a couple of days later. Meanwhile, the Arctic Sea followed its course.

On July 28, the Arctic Sea had the last radio contact with the British Coast Guard as the ship entered the English Channel between Britain and France, at which time the crew reported everything was okay. However, according to other sources, the final transmission was on July 30, 80 kilometers south of Penzance in southwest Britain.

After that, the Arctic Sea sent no signals and the vessel disappeared from radar screens. It was allegedly hijacked again on August 3, at which point the hijackers demanded a $1.5 million ransom for the vessel's safe release.

The Russian navy embarked on its first major operation since the end of the Cold War, rushing three battleships and one frigate to find the Arctic Sea. According to the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Federal Security Service (FSB) was also involved in a search-and-rescue operation. On August 14, the Russian navy rescued the vessel in international waters 480 kilometers off the West African island nation of Cape Verde.

This is the version of events aggressively promoted by the official Russian media. As in many prior cases (for example, the downing of a Korean passenger plane in 1983; the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, or the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006), this version is clumsy. The Moscow version raises, among others, the following questions:
  • If, for the past 500 years, there have been no pirates in the Baltic Sea, why have they suddenly reappeared?
  • Given that a hijacking operation of this scale is financially costly, why would the pirates target an old rusty vessel with cargo of even lesser value?
  • Why did the pirates leave it? Did they really abandon the ship?
  • When and by whom was the ship hijacked again?
  • Why did the Russian navy and the FSB suddenly decide to act so decisively to rescue a Maltese-flagged cargo ship, while ignoring the plight of Russians captives overseas - for example, sailors hijacked by Somali pirates or arrested under false pretexts by Nigerian authorities?

    Only one thing is clear: the Russian authorities have something to hide.

    Julia Latynina, a Russian investigative journalist, noticed that, before the Arctic Sea received its cargo in Finland, it underwent two weeks of maintenance in the Russian port of Kaliningrad, a major Russian military base in the Baltic Sea.

    This is where, Latynina presumes, the ship was loaded with a cargo attractive to the pirates. Could it be drugs? No, says Latynina. They wouldn't be worth a sophisticated operation of hijacking a ship in the highly policed waters of the Baltic Sea. She believes that the only plausible explanation must be an illegal shipment of weapons destined for, say, Iran or Syria. Moreover, there were no pirates, but rather a group of professionals sent by a state displeased with these activities.

    This correspondent asked a former GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) officer, who many years ago escaped to the West, what he thought was on board the Arctic Sea. Instead of giving a direct answer, he suggested checking an obscure Russian-language website Anvictory.org, where a former Russian military officer based in Ukraine, Vladimir Filin, posted an article entitled, "Biochemical weapon which [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin intends to drop on Jewish heads." Filin writes that the Arctic Sea, under the cover of a load of Finnish timber, was delivering a shipment of weapons to Iran via Algeria.

    Filin said the crates (loaded on board in Kaliningrad) could have contained four X-55 strategic cruise missiles (without front sections) and devices to implement an air launch from military planes of the SU-24 type, provided that the aircraft were retrofitted as carriers of a single cruise missile.

    He asserts, too, that this was not the first shipment. According to Filin:
    Russia had previously delivered to Iran the front sections of X-55, which was retrofitted to carry Soviet-made chemical weapons.

    The biochemical weapons were already delivered from Russia to Iran by air. It was expected that, in the near future, Russian specialists would arrive in Iran in order to bring the SU-24 and X-55 up to a state of readiness and to train Iranian military personnel.

    It was also expected that, given the high probability of an Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, X-55 missiles loaded with biochemical warheads could be used in the Iranian counterstrike against Israeli cities.

    [...] Given the scale of the potential international brouhaha, a country with a distinct interest in preventing this shipment chose to interdict it in an unofficial manner.

    [...] So far, this is all what I have to say.
    Most notably, this article was written before the Russian navy rescued the ship.

    Last Thursday, the former commander of defense forces of Estonia, Tarmo Kiuts, repeated the same presumption. He said on board the Arctic Sea most probably were Russian X-55 missiles that the vessel was carrying to Iran.

    In its latest version, official Russian television said ecologists had hijacked the Arctic Sea because they had ran out of fuel for their boats.

    Cristina Batog is a graduate of Georgetown University, specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe.

    (Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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