MOSCOW Sept. 2, 20009—, 2009 -- A top European Union official says that the cargo ship Arctic Sea that disappeared in the waters off of Portugal in late July was secretly carrying Russian missiles bound for the Middle East but was intercepted by Israel.
The Russian maritime expert who broke the story of the ship's disappearance agrees that the ship was likely carrying something Russia doesn't want the world to see and has fled to Turkey after a mysterious phone call told him to "get the hell out of Russia."
"There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can't explain this situation in any other way," the EU's rapporteur on piracy Admiral Tarmo Kouts told Time Magazine, confirming that he believes Israel was behind the interception of the Arctic Sea. "As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic."
The official version is the ship was sailing from Finland to Algeria with about $1.5 million worth of lumber. On July 24, it was reportedly boarded by hijackers in the Baltic Sea. After 12 hours, the crew radioed shore saying the hijackers had left and they were continuing on their voyage. After the ship passed through the English Channel a few days later, there was no more contact with land and the vessel vanished off of radar screens on July 29.
Two weeks later, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Russian Navy to go find the ship and its Russian crew. They located it on Aug. 17 off the Cape Verde Islands and claimed to have taken it back from the pirates – who were still on board – without firing a shot.
The navy has now commandeered the ship and is towing it to a port in the Black Sea so that investigators can "find out what cargo the Arctic Sea was carrying," a spokesman from Russia's Investigations Committee told Interfax. They deny that arms were on board but don't rule out the possibility of something besides lumber being in the hold.
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"You can easily hide an alley of cruise missiles under a lumber stockpile," Kouts told an Estonian newspaper two weeks ago, and the Russian maritime expert who broke the story on Aug. 8 of the ship's disappearance agrees with him.
"I can't think of any other reason," Mikhail Voitenko told ABC News. "I just can't explain it by any other way. Not by piracy, it's foolish. What piracy?" he asks, pointing to the low value of the ship's official cargo.
Voitenko has been a loud voice about the lack of detail surrounding the saga of the Arctic Sea and his reporting in his online maritime bulletin Sovfracht apparently touched a nerve. A few days ago he got a call telling him he had hours to "get the hell out of Russia" or he would be arrested.
"There is something on board they don't want anyone to see," says Voitenko by phone from a hotel in Istanbul. He says that by reporting the missing ship he "spoiled the whole business for somebody" and now "they just want revenge, to smash me."
Voitenko says his primary concern is the ship's crew. When the navy took over the ship they immediately flew 11 of the 15 crew back to Moscow along with the hijackers for questioning.
The crew members were confined to a hotel for two weeks, only allowed to call their families to tell them they were alive and well. They were released over the weekend and haven't revealed anything about their ordeal or the questioning that followed.
When asked by reporters what happened during their four weeks at sea, one sailor joked to reporters that they were "in the Bermuda Triangle and the pirates fed us ice cream."
As for why aren't saying more, "They don't call me, I don't call them. We are afraid," explains Voitenko.
The eight hijackers for their part claim they are ecologists who ran out of gas in the Baltic, which certainly doesn't explain the $1.5 million ransom they are reported to have demanded. The Russian, Estonian and Latvian nationals have been charged with piracy and kidnapping.
Israel's Foreign Ministry won't comment and Russian officials have flatly denied that they were transporting weapons. Russia's NATO envoy said Admiral Kouts should "stop running his mouth."
Authorities say the "Arctic Sea" will arrive in the port of Novorossiisk in mid-September with the four remaining crew members at which point a more thorough investigation will take place.