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The hijacking of the Arctic Sea - what really happened?

The recent hijacking of the Russian ship in the Baltic Sea heading for Algeria caused a great media stir. No sooner had the media furore subsided a blackout of information of on the subject was imposed. There has since been no public report by the concerned parties of exactly what happened to the ship. Nor has there been any confirmation of whether the ship was actually carrying weapons to Iran, as was alleged. Suffice to say that the Russian defence minister Anatoliy Eduardovich pointed out that the hijack of the Russian ship was carried out by eight persons of Estonian, Latvian and Russian nationalities; that they commandeered the ship at the end of July and diverted it toward the West African coast.

According to the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces the ship was subjected to a thorough search after it arrived at "Novorussik" and it was verified that its only cargo was lumber and there is no basis of claims that it was secretly carrying weapons. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov subsequently confirmed this.  According to official statements from the Russians, the ship was simply a commercial carrier transporting lumber from Finland to Algeria.

Media reports suggested that the Israeli secret service Mossad was behind the planning and hijack of the ship to prevent the delivery of a shipment of missiles (Cruise X-55 or S300), which is a Russian defense system altered on the pattern of the American Patriot defense system. They claim the weapons were concealed in the lumber destined for Iran.  This gave the issue a certain political value as the Russian paper "Ruusikiya gazette" published an article citing the director of the judicial investigation into the affair of "Alexahder…, noting that the investigation did not rule out the claim that the cargo was not lumber.

The Russian government has on its part imposed a blanket of secrecy over the subject for the first three months after the hijack. At present, four members of the crew are still held on board the ship under tight military surveillance. Besides, the prosecutor general has prevented the released members of the crew form making any public statements about the matter. Several reports now confirm that those who were released have refused to discuss the matter, giving the impression that the government has indeed imposed a banning order on the disclosure of any information of what occurred.  This was affirmed by the deputy head of the security agency in the Russian parliament ….. " only one thing is clear from all this, that this matter is murky".   Meanwhile "Tarmoo Curtis", the convenor of the European Union Council to Combat Piracy confirmed that he had an unlimited number of contradictory reports and the fcat that Russians did prevent the sailors from speaking publicly is itself indicative of a lot.

The issue of the missile shipment imposed itself on the pages of newspapers throughout August and created a media frenzy that transformed the matter from an ordinary act of piracy to which a commercial ship was subjected, to one of an espionage war between Iran and Israel.  Information gleaned from official reports refutes the media attempts to sensationalise the issue in order to prove that there were hidden hands behind the incident.  One can support this analysis that the Russian navy freed the ship days after it was hijacked.  Meaning that there was ample time to off-load the shipment of alleged missiles and leave whatever it was carrying of lumber. This is consistent with the view of a Russian official that a thorough search was conducted and that no weapons were found on board.

Tel Aviv has not claimed responsibility for the operation. Their reluctance to officially speak about the matter and the contents of the ship may be attributed to several reasons notable among them: a desire not to disclose information of an illegal operation conducted by its chief intelligence agency or not to escalate tensions with the source of the ship for reasons determined by Tel Aviv. Likewise, any official disclosure by Israel would place it in a very embarrassing position with European capitals. Several official European reports have confirmed the involvement of Mossad elements in the hijacking operation. Swedish reports which though not officially released were leaked to the intelligence agencies of member states of the European Union. They point out that the eight hijackers were members of the Israeli Mosssad and that they wore the uniforms of the Swedish police and boarded the Russian ship on the pretext that they were Swedish customs officers, specifically between the "Oland" and "Kut land". This is a clear act of aggression on the sovereignty of a European country in its territorial waters and the use of its national symbols in such a manner is a criminal offence which can lead to Israel being censured not to mention the complication of its relations with European partners if this matter was exposed in an official manner.

It is not necessary true that the ship had missiles heading for Iran to warrant the involvement of the Israeli Mossad. The operation may have been carefully planned and executed in order to embarrass Iran and exert more international pressure on it. This is a view shared by the official Russian disclosures concerning the erroneous nature of the media claims of the ship's contents; a view also shared by INTERPOL who verified That what occurred was an act of piracy, the aim of which was to change the name and image of the ship before using it for the purposes of the cargo. This is however contradicted by information about the kind of missiles as some reports mentioned that they were Cruise X55 while others suggest they were ground to air missiles of the S300 category.

The hijacking of the Russian ship will impact negatively on Russian-Israeli relations. Russian regards it as an aggression on its sovereignty and interests, bearing in mind that it was a Russian ship with a Russian crew.  The incident will add to the existing tensions between the two countries which are still reeling from the effects of the setback to their relations after the Russians established that Israel supplied military assistance to Georgia in its attack on South Ossetia last year.

More important than this is the damage to Israel's image before world public opinion.  It reinforces views about the extent of Israeli disregard for international law and conventions relating to respect for the sovereignty of states; especially after Israel accrued to itself the right to hijack a ship in the territorial waters of countries that have their own international standing on the pretext of protecting its security which has now become seemingly paramount, even above the human values and international law.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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