New Twist In The Case Of Russian 'Mystery' Ship

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht i i

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht, speaks to the media Aug. 18 in Moscow about the mystery surrounding the Arctic Sea freighter. Voitenko, whose company, Sovfracht, specializes in anti-piracy security consulting, said the hijacking was beyond the means of ordinary pirates. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht, speaks to the media Aug. 18 in Moscow about the mystery surrounding the Arctic Sea freighter. Voitenko, whose company, Sovfracht, specializes in anti-piracy security consulting, said the hijacking was beyond the means of ordinary pirates.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian commando with alleged pirate i i

A Russian commando escorts one of the men accused of hijacking the cargo ship Arctic Sea. Critics allege that the ship may have been smuggling missiles and that Russian officials may have been involved. Ricky Lopez/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ricky Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Russian commando with alleged pirate

A Russian commando escorts one of the men accused of hijacking the cargo ship Arctic Sea. Critics allege that the ship may have been smuggling missiles and that Russian officials may have been involved.

Ricky Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Pirates? Smuggled missiles? Israeli commandos? The Bermuda Triangle? The mystery of what happened to the Russian cargo ship Arctic Sea deepened this week. The ship made headlines last month when it went missing on the high seas near Europe.

On Thursday, a Russian maritime journalist said he was forced to flee Moscow for Istanbul. Mikhail Voitenko said he had been threatened for suggesting that the ship might have been involved in illegal arms smuggling.

The Moscow Times newspaper reported Thursday that Voitenko left for Turkey, saying "some serious guys hinted" that he should leave Russia for three or four months. Voitenko, the editor of a shipping news Web site, suggested the men may have been members of Russia's intelligence agency, the FSB.

Voitenko was quoted in an interview with the BBC from Turkey saying, "I don't want to go to a Russian prison, that's for sure."

Voitenko's Web site carried regular updates on the Arctic Sea after it disappeared in late July and was finally recovered by Russian navy vessels on Aug. 17. He was among the first to suggest that the Arctic Sea may have been carrying more than the registered cargo of Finnish timber it was supposed to be taking to a port in Algeria.

He was quoted in Time magazine this week saying that a secret cargo could have been loaded aboard the vessel in the Russian port of Kaliningrad before it picked up the timber in Finland.

The Time article reported on speculation that the ship could have been smuggling missiles or other weapons to the Middle East, and that the shipment was actually intercepted by agents from Israel. The rumors included a suggestion that officials in the Russian government would have to have been involved.

Russian officials have said the Arctic Sea and its 15 Russian crew members were seized by a team of hijackers off the coast of Sweden in an apparent ransom attempt. Russia's Defense Ministry deployed ships, submarines and planes in an effort to locate the vessel, which was eventually spotted off the coast of western Africa.

The Russian navy said the hijackers surrendered without a fight on Aug. 17.

Eleven of the Arctic Sea's crewmen arrived in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk on Aug. 29, after being held for questioning in Moscow. They would not comment on the case, but they did joke with reporters that they had disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle, where they were fed ice cream by the pirates.

Critics of the official Russian explanation say the public is being fed more than ice cream. The Time report quotes the European Union's rapporteur on piracy, Adm. Tarmo Kouts of Estonia, as saying that the only way to explain the events is to accept the theory that the Arctic Sea was carrying missiles.

Kouts said he believed the most likely explanation was that Israel had intercepted the shipment, which may have been destined for anti-Israeli militants, such as Hamas or Hezbollah.

Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, denied the rumor, saying that Kouts should stop "running his mouth."

Analysts skeptical of the official Russian explanation, including Voitenko, have pointed to what they say are a number of discrepancies in the story:

— As an aging vessel with only about $1.8 million worth of timber onboard, the Arctic Sea was not a very lucrative target for pirates.

— Russia's Defense Ministry mounted an unusually large force to look for the missing ship, suggesting that the Russian government wanted to get to the cargo before anyone else could see it.

— The Russian government sent two huge military cargo planes to pick up 11 members of the crew and eight alleged pirates. (Four crew members reportedly stayed aboard as the ship was towed home.) Critics suggest the planes could have spirited away the Arctic Sea's secret cargo.

— The crew members were held for questioning for days, without being allowed to see their families or talk with reporters. Critics suggest the crew members were being persuaded to keep quiet.

— Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Russia on Aug. 18, just a day after the Arctic Sea was recovered, for talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the talks included "the sale of Russian weapons and military hardware to countries hostile to Israel."

Russian investigators are not saying when they expect to issue a report. The next phase of the investigation is expected to be a thorough search of the Arctic Sea when it is brought to a Russian port later this month.

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