Monday, August 24, 2009

Just What Happened on the Arctic Sea?

Confusion increases over mystery hijacking
Shipping News Feature

RUSSIA – The hijacking of the ship Arctic Sea is rapidly beginning to look like something out of a James Bond script judging from the stories originating from the world’s press, which is being fuelled by the bizarre nature of the few facts known to the public on the hijackers.

After appearing in court in Russia on Friday for charges to be levelled against them for piracy and kidnapping, it transpired that previous suspicions of the men being members of the Russian mafia seem unlikely. Instead, one of the accused is a builder, another a metal worker and a third allegedly reported drowned three years ago.

Andrei Lunev, the supposed deceased, was recorded by the Russian authorities as having gone down with the fishing boat Pelagial in August 2006. Though unconfirmed, the lost mans family are sure that one of the hijackers is indeed Mr. Lunev, adding that to have him reappear in such a way, on television being led by security personnel, was a great shock.

When questioned on Russian TV after his arrest Mr. Lunev said that the group had been part of an environmental group that had approached the Arctic Sea for help when their own inflatable ran out of petrol. But when asked what the group's name was, he answered: "I don't know. It was some private organisation."

The mystery is further deepened by reports this weekend in the Russian media that the men were in fact agents working on behalf of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad. The newspaper Novaya Gazeta has reported that the Arctic Sea had been carrying x-55 cruise missiles and S300 anti-aircraft rockets hidden in secret compartments among its cargo of timber and sawdust. Pravda has also alleged that the weapons were to be smuggled to Iran.

This speculation has been further fuelled by a visit to Moscow by Israeli premier Shimon Peres the day after the Russians successfully recaptured the vessel. According to Novaya Gazeta, this was in fact to make an appeal to Russia not to arm the pariah state.

Such speculation has been met with contempt by Israeli sources. Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said: "This appears as the classic conspiracy theory. I didn't see any evidence for it and so we aren't going to comment.” The Foreign Ministry also points out that Mr. Peres' visit had been scheduled for some time.

Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said of the stories that: "It seems that it's full of mystery since everything surrounding Russia is mysterious. And if it's mysterious they dump it on Israel."

It has also been noted that the speed with which the Russian navy acted on behalf of a vessel that was registered to a Finnish company and carried the Maltese flag was surprising considering the apparent lack of information on where the Arctic Sea was after its seizure.

While such stories are largely wild theory, there can be no doubt that the information black out from Russia concerning the incident is the main contributor. With seamen involved in the capture refusing to answer questions on the grounds they have been ordered not to reveal ‘state secrets’ and Russian marine experts going quiet on the case, it seems likely that the truth concerning events surrounding the Arctic Sea's adventure may take a long time to be fully explained, if it ever is.