Hijacked ship claims shrouded in mystery
www.chinaview.cn 2009-09-04 05:55:18   Print

    by David Harris

    JERUSALEM, Sept. 3 (Xinhua) -- This story has all the makings of an international best seller. Its ingredients are a ship with a mysterious cargo, a flotilla of Russian naval vessels, the Israeli Mossad, weapons bound for Iran, an investigative journalist and a whole lot more.

    The Arctic Sea set sail from Finland in July supposedly carrying a cargo of lumber, said to be worth just a couple of million dollars. Its destination was Algeria.

    After just two days the ship was passing through the English Channel, a waterway not exactly known these days for violence and intrigue, when a group of "pirates" boarded her and she "disappeared."

    The Russia navy dispatched several ships to hunt for the Arctic Sea, which was discovered several days later nowhere near Algeria. The ship was located close to Cape Verde, some 500 kilometers off the Senegalese coast.

    It is believed the crew and hijackers were whisked off to Russia to find out exactly what happened. End of story -- seemingly.

    THE MYSTERY DEEPENS

    Then, on Aug. 31 Time magazine published an item asking whether the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency was behind the hijacking of the Arctic Sea. Its author, Simon Shuster, quoted experts as saying the ship's payload was actually weapons bound for the Middle East.

    The magazine quoted the European Union's Rapporteur on piracy and a former commander of the Estonian armed forces, Admiral Tarmo Kouts, as the most senior source for the weapons theory.

    The article and subsequent reportage have brought up a series of questions regarding the entire affair: Why did the ship fail to emit a distress signal? Why did Israel's President Shimon Peres make a surprise visit to Moscow the day after the Russian's arrested the hijackers? Was the ship's cargo bound for Iran?

    As if all this speculation was not enough to fill a spy novel, the top-selling Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot's website published the suggestion on Tuesday that the hijacking was actually carried out by Russia itself.

    The Yediot report claimed the ship set sail from the closed military area of Kalingrad in Russia bound for Finland.

    The Russian government received a tip off about the ship and sent its own team to intercept the vessel, according to the Israeli daily.

    Yediot concluded its news item by pointing out that four years ago Russia signed a deal with the United States and Israel promising not to sell destabilizing weapons to Iran and Syria.

    LITTLE OR NO INFORMATION AVAILABLE

    Both the Russians and Israelis have remained stony silent on the affair, although the hijackers have already appeared in a Russian court to be charged on counts of piracy and kidnapping.

    It is extremely difficult to obtain accurate, reliable information. Organizations that specialize in following piracy are refusing to comment on this incident.

    The International Maritime Bureau, which is based in the United Kingdom, said "we're not actually making any comment about the Arctic Sea due to the limited information that was available."

    Likewise the International Maritime Organization said it does not comment on ongoing issues, particularly when they involve legal proceedings.

    The ship is registered in Malta, where the Maltese Maritime Authority told Xinhua its security committee meets two or three times a week and right now the Arctic Sea is most certainly on the agenda.

    "The Committee would like to clarify that the movements of the Arctic Sea were always known for several days, notwithstanding reports that the ship had 'disappeared.' There was consensus amongst the investigating authorities of Finland, Malta and Sweden not to disclose any sensitive information in order not to jeopardize the life and safety of the persons on board and the integrity of the ship," the Maltese authority said in an earlier statement.

    The Maltese believe those detained in relation to the hijacking were Estonian, Latvian and Russian nationals.

    That does not entirely rule out the possibility that those involved were Israeli agents. Mossad operatives have been known to use foreign passports in the past and it is believed the organization actively recruits non-Middle-Eastern-looking Israelis for some of its missions.

    BROADER SECURITY CONCERNS

    The Middle-Eastern angle apart, this incident brings up a series of questions for maritime security experts in Europe. It is now being widely reported the hijacking of the Arctic Sea is the first act of piracy in European waters in many years.

    Ships' crews are now well aware of basic security measures on board their ships that comply with the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, which came into force five years ago. The code lays out steps that should be taken to "detect security threats and take preventative measures against security incidents affecting ships or port facilities used in international trade."

    However, that does not leave crews equipped to deal with hijackers and kidnappers, according to Geoffrey Greaves, the general manager of the security consultancy International Maritime Security.

    "(The code) is only for deterrence and preventive security but nobody on board is trained to fight hostage takers or armed attackers," Greaves said. If there is such a perceived threat external security experts are brought aboard. 

Editor: Mu Xuequan
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