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2 Sep, 2009 22:50

“Arctic Sea” intercepted by Israel over missiles cargo?

The story about the hijacked Russian-crewed cargo ship grows ever more mysterious. Time magazine is alleging that the “Arctic Sea” was intercepted by Israel as it carried weapons to the Middle East.

The allegations began with Admiral Tarmo Kouts, a former commander of the Estonian armed forces who now heads the European Union’s piracy watch.

According to him, Israel is the country most likely to have carried out the hijacking on the ship to prevent what he claims were missiles being delivered to countries in the Middle East.

Time writes that in an interview with the magazine, Kouts said “only a shipment of missiles could account for Russia's bizarre behavior throughout the month-long saga.”

"There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can't explain this situation in any other way," he is quoted as saying. "As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic."

The official word, however, is that the “Arctic Sea” was transporting timber from Finland to Algeria. In response to Kouts’s allegations, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, said he should stop "running his mouth."

Meanwhile, the majority of Israel’s population does not believe their country was in any way involved in the situation. According to Israeli military and security experts, the state’s secret services would not act on Russian territory without the knowledge of Russian authorities.

In recent months, Israel has carried out attacks on convoys and ships that were believed to be carrying weapons to Iran. The issue got a lot of publicity as Israel wanted to make sure the international community was aware that weapons were reaching the Islamic Republic.

So, if Israel was involved in the hijacking of the Russian-manned vessel, why did it not draw attention to it? Another question is why pirates, who work for many, were involved in the affair – it’s really a risky business to deal with them.

According to Ronen Bergman, an investigative journalist at the Yediot Aharonoth newspaper, “Israeli intelligence would create the framework in which, for example, international police force would seize the ship.”

He said they’d “embarrass Russia or the company supplying the S-300 [Russian long range surface-to-air missile systems] to either Syria or Iran” by drawing the world’s attention to their actions and saying “Look, we caught them!”

In Russia, the Israeli involvement version has not met much support either.

“Look at the faces of the men who stormed the “Arctic Sea” and their backgrounds – they are criminals. Not a single security service in the world would ever deal with such people,” said Russian opposition politician Aleksey Mitrofanov. “The whole incident looks like score settling between the ship owner and his partners. Someone must have asked the attackers to force the ‘Arctic Sea’ owner – who had misbehaved – to change his attitude.”

However, those who believe the allegation that Israel was involved in the interception of the ship say that no other country is more willing or more able to carry out an operation like that on such a professional level. And another question that some people keep asking is why Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Russia just a day after the hijacking.

So, it looks this story is far from the end.

It all began when the Maltese-flagged vessel with 15 Russian crewmembers on board mysteriously disappeared from radar screens at the end of July, sparking an international search and prompting much speculation.

Later it was discovered that the “Arctic Sea” was seized on July 24 in the Baltic Sea. On August 17 the vessel was found by the Russian navy 300 miles off Cape Verde.

The Russian frigate “Ladny” freed the “Arctic Sea” cargo ship in the Atlantic without firing a shot and arrested eight alleged hijackers from Estonia, Latvia and Russia.

A criminal investigation into the case has been launched. The suspects were officially charged with piracy and kidnapping and the crewmembers returned home.