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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.