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As the Arctic Sea remains off the coast of the Canary Islands, questions about its cargo deepen.
MOSCOW, Russia — More than a month ago the Arctic Sea, the Russian-crewed cargo ship suspected of transporting illegal arms to Iran, was recovered off the coast of West Africa.
One month and no clarity. One month and no ship, even.
Russian investigators are sticking to their story: The Arctic Sea, a Maltese-flagged ship whose ultimate owner is a company owned by a Russian residing in Finland, was making a standard delivery of $2 million worth of timber from the Finnish port of Pietarsaari to Bejaia, in northern Algeria. On July 24, one day after setting off, it was boarded by eight pirates off the coast of Sweden — yes, Sweden, not Somalia — who held it for ransom, took it off course and were eventually arrested by the Russian navy three weeks later after being spotted near the coast of Cape Verde.
Officially, the investigation is closed.
“The ship was searched with the help of modern appliances, inside and outside. There was nothing but timber and lumber,” Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Investigative Committee, told Russian news agencies Sept. 19. “Nothing that could compromise the Russian Federation was found.”
Of course, a lot could have happened while the ship roamed the high seas for more than four weeks.
When news of the ship’s disappearance broke in early August, observers started tracking its every move, as far as that was possible. One minute it was spotted in the English Channel, the next off the coast of Portugal. Then, radio silence. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Russian navy to find the ship, which it did, on Aug. 17. Investigators announced that the Arctic Sea was on its way to Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorosiisk.
When legal authorities speak, people tend to believe them. But this is Russia, and nothing is ever that clear cut.
Now Russian authorities say the Arctic Sea is idling off the coast of the Canary Islands because Spanish authorities have refused the ship entry into the port of Las Palmas. A Spanish foreign ministry source told AFP, however, that it was Russian authorities who withdrew the request for docking. The runaround is only adding to suspicions that the Russians have something to hide.
Shortly after the ship was recovered, Israeli and Russian intelligence sources began telling the press that far from being the first case of piracy in European waters since the 17th century, the disappearance of the Arctic Sea was a cover story to mask the interception of illegal arms shipments to Hezbollah or Iran.
The most public proponent of that theory, naval analyst Mikhail Voitenko, fled Russia on Sept. 3, after receiving telephone threats from what he called “serious people.” Voitenko fled to Istanbul and was last heard from in Thailand. His mobile phone has been disconnected.
A couple of weeks before docking in the Finnish port of Pietarsaari, the Arctic Sea underwent repairs in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave nestled between Poland and Lithuania that has long been infamous for arms and drug smuggling.
Voitenko, and others, suggested that while there it was loaded with weapons — possibly the Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile — then set sail for Syria or Iran. The shipment was noted by Israeli intelligence, who then tipped off the Russians so that they could intercept the shipment without creating an international scandal.