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19 Sep, 2009 16:03

Countries refuse responsibility for crippled ‘Arctic Sea’

The cargo ship whose hijacking sparked a major international search a few weeks ago is still being barred from docking on the island of Gran Canaria, and its crew say they are running low of fuel and drinking water.

The mystery of the Arctic Sea continues as an interesting course of events has occurred in the last couple of days with the ship. It should have been docked in the port by now, but that is obviously not the case.

About three days ago, Spanish, Maltese and Russian officials gathered on the Canary Islands to discuss the transfer of the Arctic Sea, which is currently offshore near the Canaries and reportedly in very poor shape.

Two days ago, negotiations became bogged down when officials of the three countries could not come to an agreement on how the transfer would take place.

Maltese officials said it was not their responsibility to take control of the ship, even though it sails under a Maltese flag. At the same time, Spanish authorities do not want to put the ship in the port of Porta de Palmas in the Canaries because they do not want to be left with the responsibility of paying for the repairs of the ship.

“The decision of the Maltese authorities has puzzled the Russian Investigative Committee. Moreover, it contradicts international maritime law. The Maltese action makes the ship docking in the Spanish port of Las Palmas problematic. This also creates problems for the ship’s crew because they are running out of fuel and drinking water,” commented Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee.

All fingers are pointing at the company that owns the Arctic Sea – Solchart. The company claims the situation and its handling has forced the owner into bankruptcy. In a statement, Solchart director Viktor Matveev said:

“Money needs to be found to continue using the vessel, to bring it back to a proper working condition, to provide it with everything necessary, as well as to pay back our creditors.”

The company has reportedly sent representative to the Canary Islands to get involved and bring all appropriate papers to dock the ship in the Canaries, but at the last minute Spanish authorities denied access of the Arctic Sea to the port, without offering an explanation.

The safety of the ship is a big issue right now. The owner insists the ship badly needs repair. It is expected that Maltese and Spanish officials are going to visit Arctic Sea to learn exactly what kind of repair is needed, whether it is possible to bring the ship into the port and what damage was caused, if any, to the wood cargo being carried by the ship.

Meanwhile, no compromising cargo has been found aboard the Arctic Sea, according to the Investigations Committee of Russia’s Prosecutor's Office.

“Today, a group of Russian investigators left the Arctic Sea cargo ship and are flying back to Russia tomorrow,” said Pavel Barkovsky from the Prosecutor General’s office. “During the investigation, the pirates’ belongings and their boat, which was used to approach and seize the ship, were impounded. Special modern equipment was used for searching the ship. And the passenger and technical facilities were inspected inside and out. We didn’t find any items that could compromise the Russian Federation.”

Two days ago, Russian authorities unloaded equipment for gathering evidence on another tanker, the Iman. The evidence includes some of the weapons and the boat used by hijackers to board the ship.

In Moscow, more drama surfaced surrounding the merchant vessel Arctic Sea, as lawyers representing the accused pirates claimed Russia was operating outside international maritime law.

“I believe that this arrest is illegal, and it is not grounded. According to the Russian Criminal Code, the type of punishment should be decided within 48 hours after the factual detention. In this case, it took four days to specify the punishment,” stated Dmitry Pronin, lawyer for Latvian citizen Vitaly Lepin.