A European source claimed in a recent interview with Time Magazine, that Israel was responsible for the hijacking of Russian cargo ship the Arctic Sea since it was suspected of carrying an arms shipment to the Middle East, Ynet learned Wednesday.
The Arctic Sea went missing in July while en route from Finland to Algeria. Its disappearance sparked reports of a first incident of piracy in European waters in modern times.
The Russian Navy has since located the ship, arrested the alleged hijackers and charged them with kidnapping and piracy, but Admiral Tarmo Kouts, the European Union's rapporteur on piracy, now claims the Arctic Sea was intercepted by Israel as it carried a secret cargo of weapons to the Middle East.
Russia has adamantly denied the ship was carrying any kind of military supplies.
Nevertheless, Kouts told Time that only a shipment of missiles could account for Moscow'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. As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic."
Kouts claims that an Israeli interception of the ship is the most likely explanation. But his theory, has been vehemently denied by Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, who says Kouts should stop "running his mouth."
Too many unanswered questions
Moscow's official explanation was simple: The Arctic Sea, manned by a Russian crew, set sail from Finland under a Maltese flag on July 22. It was destined for Algeria and carried less than $2 million worth of timber. Then a group of eight Russian and former Soviet hijackers boarded the ship on July 24. The ship's tracking device was disabled in the last days of July, as it passed through the English Channel into the Atlantic, and the ship disappeared. On Aug. 12, the Russian navy sent out a search party. A week later, Russia declared that the ship and its crew had been rescued.
The explanation, however, does little to clear many unanswered questions: Why, with so many other ships carrying much more valuable cargo, would the hijackers target the Arctic Sea and its small load of timber?
Why didn't the ship send out a distress signal? Why did Israeli President Shimon Peres pay a surprise visit to Russia a day after the ship was rescued? Why did Russia wait so long to send its navy to find the ship? And why did family members of the suspects claim their kin were "hostages to some kind of political game"?
There are also several questions surrounding ship's rescue. The Kremlin apparently dispatched a completely disproportionate force, including destroyers and submarines, to look for the vessel and it took five days for them to find it, even though the Russian Foreign Ministry later claimed that it was fully aware of the Arctic Sea's coordinates the entire time.
On top of that, to fly the alleged pirates and the crew back to Moscow – a group of only 19 men – Russia dispatched two enormous military-cargo planes.
"Even from the basic facts, without assumptions, it is clear that this was not just piracy," said Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian maritime journal Sovfrakht, which has been tracking unusual incidents on the high seas for decades.
"I've never seen anything like this. These are some of the most heavily policed waters in the world. You cannot just hide a ship there for weeks without government involvement."
According to Voitenko and other experts, a secret cargo could have been hidden on the ship during the two weeks it spent in Kaliningrad for repairs, just before it picked up its Finnish haul of timber. Not contiguous with the rest of Russia, Kaliningrad is the country's westernmost enclave on the coast of the Baltic Sea, and is known as a hub for Russian smugglers. "Personally, I don't care about any missiles. I care about what they're doing with those sailors."
Many governments, and Jerusalem especially, have expressed concerns about missile shipments bound for the Middle East: Israel has consistently raised alarms about Russia's plans to sell MiG-31 fighter planes to Syria and its construction of a nuclear-power station in southwestern Iran.
"The most likely explanation is that the Israelis intercepted this cargo, which had been meant for Syria or Iran," said Yulya Latynina, a prominent political commentator and radio host on Echo of Moscow, a station owned by state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.
"They will now use the incident as a bargaining chip with Russia over weapons sales in the region, while allowing Russia to save face by taking its empty ship back home."
According to the report in Time, both the Israeli Prime Minister's office and Mossad, declined comment.