4 Sep 2009

Mystery continues over Russian ship

1:06 pm on 4 September 2009

The tangled tale of a Russian ship, which its crew said was hijacked by pirates in July, continues to unfold.

Now, a prominent Russian journalist - who was among the first to raise the possibility that the Arctic Sea was not taken by force, but was carrying a secret cargo - says he's been forced to flee Russia.

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of an online shipping journal, Sovfract, said he had just hours to get out or face arrest.

The BBC reports he fled on Wednesday, saying he may not be able to return as his life would be in danger.

The Russian government still insists the ship was hijacked and has charged eight men with piracy.

The eight, mainly from Estonia, have been charged with hijacking and piracy over the case.

They are accused of seizing the ship and its 15-man Russian crew after raiding it disguised as police.

The hijackers were taken to Russia after the ship was spotted 480km off the west coast of Africa on 16 August.

Secret cargo?

Mr Voitenko suggests the ship may have been carrying a secret shipment of weapons as part of a private business deal by state officials.

He said he had received a threatening phone call from "serious people" whom he suggested may have been members of Russia's intelligence agency, the FSB.

The caller told Mr Voitenko that those involved in the mysterious case of the Arctic Sea were very angry with him because he had spoken publicly, and were planning on taking action against him.

He also said NATO knew exactly what had happened to the Arctic Sea.

The FSB refused to comment on the accusations.

Mossad involvement?

Mystery continues to surround the ship's disappearance, amid speculation the ship may have been intercepted by Mossad - Israel's foreign intelligence service - in order to prevent a shipment of illegal arms to the Middle East.

It vanished in July days after leaving Finland with an apparent cargo of timber worth $US1.8 million, destined for the Algerian port of Bejaia.

Russian authorities said nothing suspicious was found aboard the ship when it was found last month, but have said a more thorough inspection would be carried out when the Arctic Sea arrives in the Russian port of Novorossiisk.