Russia denies mystery ship was carrying missiles to Iran

Speculation that the Arctic Sea cargo ship seized in the Baltic in July was carrying weapons or other illicit cargo continues to swirl.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In this Dec. 29, 2008 file photo the Arctic Sea Russian-crewed freighter is seen in Kotka, Finland.
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Russia angrily denied media reports over the weekend that a freighter seized in what was dubbed the first act of piracy in northern Europe in over 100 years was in fact carrying a secret cargo of missiles to Iran.

"This is absolutely not true," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, reacting to claims made in last week's Sunday Times (London) and elsewhere that the Arctic Sea, the ship allegedly hijacked on July 28 off Sweden's coast and released on Aug. 16 by a Russian Navy ship, was secretly carrying S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Iran. The ship's official cargo was timber bound for Algeria.

Nevertheless, rumors continue to swirl around the seizure of the Arctic Sea, not least because Russia has not been forthcoming about the results of its investigation, centering around eight men who it says hijacked the ship and are now in Russian custody.

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"All will become transparent, and I hope that everyone will be convinced that the rumors you refer to are absolutely groundless," Mr. Lavrov told reporters.

Earlier this month, Mikhail Voitenko, a Russian journalist who specializes in maritime reporting, fled abroad after he said he received threats for his reporting that ship was likely being used by corrupt officials to carry weapons. Mr. Voitenko broke the story of the ships initial "disappearance" from the Baltic Sea.

Speculation that Russia's official version of events, that the pirates were simply hoping to ransom the crew and the Arctic Sea's low-value cargo, is unlikely to abate. Russia has not so far provided international access to the crew or alleged hijackers. Following the ship's capture, 11 of the Arctic Sea's crew and eight alleged hijackers were flown to Moscow. Russia dispatched three Il-76 jets – some of the largest 'heavy-lift' planes in Russia's Air Force – to return them, an odd choice when one plane would have sufficed.

Upon their Aug. 20 arrival in Moscow, both the alleged hijackers and crew were taken to the Justice Ministry's Lefortovo Prison, formerly run by the KGB. James C. Kraska, a piracy and international law expert at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I., says that Russia appeared "to sequester, rather than investigate, the crew." On Aug. 30 the crew members were reported released.

"The investigation is going on and it will take some time before we have concluded," says Jan-Olof Nyholm, a detective superintendent for Finland's National Bureau of Investigation and a spokesman for the four-nation, Helsinki-based police task force investigating the case. When asked if the task force has had access to the crew and hijackers as yet, he stated emphatically, "I think we'll make some progress here."

Hollywood movie

European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr says events surrounding the Arctic Sea may "certainly one day be made the story of a Hollywood movie." But Mr. Kraska says the hijacking is already a case of life imitating art. He says it reminds him of the Nicolas Cage film "Lord of War," in which a Russian-American uses his ties to the military to become the worlds largest illegal arms dealer.

Kraska says that an attempt at weapons smuggling by military insiders followed by a coverup by Russia when it was discovered, is likely. "In Russia, in particular, it seems the left hand and the right hand may not [always] be on the same page," he says.

Kraska, a serving naval officer, says he believes the Arctic Sea was involved with "illicit cargo ... weapon sales." He adds that it appeared, "some other group knew about it, and thought that they could capitalize on the idea.... It somewhat fell apart, and now Russia is holding the bag."

Russia agreed to sell its S-300 missile system to Iran in 2007, which prompted furious complaints from the US and Israel. The system has the ability to intercept aircraft and ballistic missiles at a range of about 100 miles, and is more powerful than the Tor-M1 missile defense system that Russia sold to Iran for $700 million in 2005. Russia has not so far delivered the S-300s, apparently taking into account international unease over Iran's nuclear program.

The day after the 7,000-ton Arctic Sea was recovered by the Russian frigate Ladny off Africa's Cape Verde islands, Israeli President Shimon Peres flew unexpectedly to Moscow. He met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and said he'd earned a promise from Russia that it would reconsider the Iran weapons deal.

While there's little doubt that Iran is eager to upgrade its arsenal, Pavel Felgenhauer, the defense columnist for Russia's Novoya Gazeta newspaper, told AFP that the Arctic Sea was unlikely to have carried such unwieldy cargo. He says the ship's hold is too small to conceal an S-300 shipment.

"Hypothetically, such a cargo ship could transport grenade launchers for Hezbollah or Hamas, Igla portable anti-aircraft missiles, something more compact than the S-300," Mr. Felgenhauer said. "At least this would not violate the laws of physics."

Plausible scenario

But international defense experts continue to say that some sort of weapons smuggling was likely behind the strange saga of the Arctic Sea.

"It's a completely plausible scenario.... This is a pattern that's happened in the past," says Russian security expert Nikolas K. Gvosdev, also of the US Naval War College. Dr. Gvosdev says there were "reports earlier this year of a weapons smuggling network in the Russian Navy."

Efforts to reach Russian authorities for comment were not successful.

On Aug. 25, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Alexander Bastrykin, the chief Russian investigator on the case, as saying "they might have been carrying not only timber." The chief of the Russian general staff, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, told reporters that "the motives behind the [Arctic Sea] seizure are not wholly clear. We do not know what it [was] carrying."

The Helsinki-based police task force is comprised of members from four nations: Finland (where the ship sailed from and where its management company is located), Sweden, Malta (the country where the Arctic Sea is registered), and Estonia (where six of the alleged hijackers were said to have resided).

Last week, Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen discussed the "possible motives" surrounding the hijacking with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, according to Finland's Helsingin Sanomat newspaper.

Anna-Mari Vimpari, special advisor to Prime Minister Vanhanen, confirmed the meeting took place. "The Prime Ministers agreed to share information - that was Mr. Vanhanen's point...and we ask the cooperation of authorities, and to that Mr. Putin agreed," she said.

Story updated at 6:00 ET to include comment from the Finnish government.

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