Say what you Sea
Russia says it has started unloading evidence from the tanker ‘Arctic Sea’, whose disappearance and rediscovery weeks later sparked widespread rumours of secret arms shipments and secret service intervention. But although investigators say they’ve finished the search of the ship, they haven’t yet released their findings.
So what happened to the tanker, Arctic Sea?
In Moscow the talk is of swashbuckling Baltic timber pirates, eager to get their hands on a $1 million ransom for some wickedly tempting wood.
Elsewhere, the story is rather different.
Sources are hard to come by. The Russians have pulled a shroud over the whole affair, and even those journalists who claim to have sources won’t name them, either out of journalistic selfishness, or because of source protection.
But wherever the story has come from, it most likely starts in the tightly controlled and highly militarised Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The place may be of huge strategic importance to Russia, but it’s also a rundown hive of crime, which includes some very sophisticated gun smuggling operations.
After the ship was boarded in the Baltic near Finland, there began a farce of a search down past the French and Spanish coasts until the ship was found off Africa. It had disappeared in July and was re-discovered weeks later in August.
Israel is the country, however quietly, which is telling a different story to Russia. It differs as follows-
The cargo: not wood, but cutting edge Russian S- 300 anti-aircraft missiles.
The destination (or at least the cargo’s): not Algeria, but Iran.
The hijackers: Not pirates, but Mossad, desperate to stop Israeli planes being blown out of the sky on their bomb runs against Iranian nuclear installations.
If it’s true (pinch of salt required) Mossad were very clever. When The Arctic Sea left Kaliningrad it’s thought they let Moscow know that they knew what was on board. It’s even suspected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew briefly to Moscow to tell the Russians face to face what was going on. They then gave Moscow a window of opportunity to find the ship and save face before they went public. They created a lot of fuss around the ship, so the world knew it had been seized. But they also left the Russians a way out. By letting them find and capture the Arctic Sea back, it looked like the Russians had succeeded in a heroic rescue. In actual fact Mossad may have hired some criminals from the Baltic region to seize the ship, the hapless lackeys oblivious to its true cargo.
Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov dismisses these claims as ,’groundless’ and says Russia’s investigation will be transparent. Russia has also arrested eight men and accuses them of piracy. Russian authorities say they’ve found guns, masks and a boat used by the pirates.
There are some odd details to the story though. Foremost among them is that Russia has signed a contract to supply Iran with S-300 missiles, but reportedly hasn’t delivered any yet. Israel vehemently opposes the deal.
Some suggest that in return for cancelling the contract, the U.S. and Israel kept silent and allowed Russia to use the ‘hijack’ cover story.
Russia has not though openly denied trying to send missiles to Iran, merely stating that it is not against international law to supply defensive weapons.
Piracy experts believe that a hijack in the busy waters of the Baltic is very unusual.
Just after the ship was found off cape Verde, Russia sent three heavy lift cargo planes to the island, with far more capacity than was needed to take away just crew and suspected hijackers.
Both versions of the story are exciting but have a large note of improbability about them. Whether the public will ever be allowed a glimpse ‘below decks’ is another question.
Editor’s Note: On Thursday, the Guardian’s latest take on the affair included an interview with the lawyer for one of the accused pirates, who offers up a new (though no less absurd) story: that the so-called pirates were actually ecological activists rescued by the Arctic Sea, and they are now being set up as pirates to cover up more nefarious goings-on. (JM)