The Arctic Sea, a Finnish-owned, Maltese-flagged 320-foot cargo ship manned by a Russian crew, sailed off from the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on 21 July, supposedly carrying timber worth over $1.5 million. The ship was bound for the port of Bejaia in Algeria.
The next morning, as the ship sailed the Baltic Sea near the Swedish island of Oland, it was “visited” by a group of around two dozen men, posing as drug enforcement officers by some accounts, as Swedish police by other accounts, and as Russian special forces by yet other accounts, the Guardian reports.
The visitors arrived by speedboat and spent 12 hours on the ship. The Arctic Sea never arrived to its Algerian destination at the estimated date of 4 August. All contact had been lost with the crew after they radioed in from the Dover straits, four days after the strange incident. The ship had vanished out of reach from any tracking systems on 30 July off the north French port of Brest, the Guardian reported.
Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation said that the ship had been hijacked and the pirates had demanded a $1.5 million ransom or they would kill the 15-member crew, the BBC reported. Apparently the “pirates” were a different group than the first set of uniformed visitors on the Arctic Sea, according to the Guardian. The Russians denied all the reports at the time.
This was the first reported act of piracy in northern Europe in a century. Europeans were on high alert and embarrassed that the incident could have happened in their highly patrolled neighborhood.
A FRANTIC MARITIME SEARCH
An international search was launched. The Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet scoured the Atlantic Ocean from the last known location of the Arctic Sea. A Portuguese air patrol believed it had spotted the missing ship and crew off the Portuguese coast, but it disappeared again after the sighting. The Portuguese Ministry deployed naval search teams.
For two tension-filled weeks, the plot thickened and so did the rumors. Was the crew involved in the hijack?
Was the last communication made by one of the pirates rather than the crew? Had the attackers disabled all of the ship’s means of communication?
Was the ship carrying drugs or plutonium? Or worse yet, did the ship have a secret stash of powerful S-300 antiaircraft missiles it was taking to Iran over the objection of the United States and Israel? The S-300 is one of Russia’s best surface-to-air missiles, roughly comparable to the MIM-104 Patriot used by the United States and Israel. It entered service in 1978, and has a range of anywhere from 29 to 121 miles, depending on the version.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quickly called the charges of smuggling S-300 missiles by the Arctic Sea a lie. The accusations are a bit of a stretch, considering the improbability of boxing up weapons the size of the S-300 missiles. Furthermore, Russia has a highly publicized contract with Iran for the S-300s. But that does not preclude the shipment of other weapons on the Arctic Sea. Russian, Finnish, Swedish and Portuguese officials had a hey day with the press.
Some speculated that the ship had secret compartments built in when it underwent maintenance in the Baltic smuggling haven near the Russian port of Kaliningrad.
Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online maritime bulletin Sovfracht, fled Russia after he reported the mystery of the Arctic Sea, claiming that he had received threats for reporting that the vessel was carrying a load of weapons for corrupt officials, the Christian Science Monitor reported. Escape was probably a good idea, considering the fact that journalists in Russia have been killed violently, poisoned, or brutally attacked. The latest murder of a human rights journalist had occurred just a month prior. But Voitenko is one lucky journalist on the bad side of murderous Russian officials.
One can speculate that the high publicity that surrounded this bizarre case may have saved him—for now.
A FUGITIVE FROM TYRRANY
Voitenko told the Guardian from his hideout in Istanbul before he fled to an undisclosed location in Bangkok, that an unidentified caller warned him he was "stepping on the toes of some serious people." The caller told him that he had offended powerful, possibly criminal, interests – adding that "certain people are out for revenge," that they were unhappy with him, did not want “unpleasantness” and that he had better leave the country. The anonymous caller who spoke with a "chilling voice" was from the FSB, Russia's post-KGB spy agency.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a secret visit to Moscow to supposedly discuss Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran during the time charges were flying in September, rumors flew that the legendary Mossad might have had a role in the disappearance of the Arctic Sea. The London Telegraph also reported that Israeli President Shimon Peres had talked with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about Russian arms sales the day after the Arctic Sea was located.
Two weeks after the vessel vanished, the Russian navy reported that the Russian Krivak-class frigate Ladnyy had spotted the ship off the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa, thousands of miles from its destination. The Russian crews seized the Arctic Sea, arrested the eight hijackers--two Latvians, two Estonians and two Russians, and freed 11 of its crew, instructing them not to talk of the events surrounding the “disappearance” of the ship.
The hijackers and crew were transported to Lefortovo prison in Moscow by three II-76 jets, Russia’s 4-engined air freighters designed to haul oversized, heavy cargo and fuel. A strange choice of transport for a few dozen men.
The suspects claimed that they were simply “ecologists” working for an ecology group who ran out of petrol as they were exploring the sea. One was a metal worker, another a builder, the Telegraph reported. They could not identify the company they were working for.
WE WERE FRAMED
One of the “pirates,” sitting in jail, charged with kidnapping and piracy, told the Guardian a much different story through his attorney. He and his ecologist buddies were being framed. They had left the Estonian summer beach resort of Pärnu in the early morning of 24 July and headed into the choppy Baltic Sea in their soft-hulled inflatable dinghy. They were testing a new GPS unit.
The adventurers were hit by a big wave that flooded their navigation system, breaking it. The engine was failing and they lost their bearings. When it got dark they saw two ships, one a speeding passenger ocean liner and the other the Arctic Sea with a low hull.
The friendly crew had rescued the eight from the battered dinghy, sharing with the visitors their stashes of vodka and other spirits. When the eight shipwrecked men asked the captain to let them off at the nearest port, he refused with no explanation. The ecologists had no clue that the ship was the subject of a frantic search.
To add to the insanity, one of the captured “pirates” was a fisherman who supposedly disappeared and had been listed as drowned at sea three years previously when the ship he was working on turned over. His shocked family saw his face on the TV after his apprehension, if their unconfirmed identification of him was accurate, that is.
Eight weeks after the supposed seizure of the Arctic Sea, the vessel, under Russian military control, had still not made it to port, the New York Times reported. In a bizarre twist, the hijackers tried to change its name by painting a new one on its hull. At least that was the latest report from Moscow. The Russians stuck by their story that the cargo was simply lumber. Photographs on the Prosecutor General’s Investigative Committee’s web show the lumber cargo, with a new name Jon Jin 2, and a bullet hole in one of the cabin walls.
The name and an identification number painted on the ship’s stern belong to a North Korean bulk carrier that was docked in Angola at the time, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, the NYT reports.
Cagey Moscow officials are avoiding tough questions. Captain First Rank Sergei Ivanov of the Russian Federation Navy declined to comment to SOF, saying that he only knew what was in the media. An email sent to the Russian military attaché in Washington bounced back.
The captain, Sergei Zaretsky, and three other of the 15 Arctic Sea crewmembers are still on the ship under military control. Maybe. Their families have not heard from them.
Dr. Martin Brass is an international lawyer.