- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000

The U.S. Navy Thursday seized a tanker near the Persian Gulf and accused Russia of trafficking in forbidden Iraqi oil, touching off a war of words that threatened to further rankle Washington-Moscow relations.

Russia claimed the ship, the privately owned Volgoneft-47, was filled with Iranian not Iraqi oil and demanded its release.

"The Russian side resolutely insists the tanker is immediately released," Russia's Interfax new agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Sredin as saying.

But the Pentagon shot back that it had firm evidence the vessel is smuggling contraband oil after helicopter-borne inspectors from the Multinational Intercept Force (MIF) boarded and inspected the ship.

"We believe this vessel is carrying contraband," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.

The seizure comes as Saddam Hussein's regime has stepped up smuggling as world oil prices climbed in recent months to more than $30 a barrel.

The number of metric tons of oil secreted out of Iraq has increased from 191,000 in September to 367,000 in January. In response, the international intercept force has increased patrols to catch the outlaw ships.

State Department spokesman James Foley disclosed that as early as a month ago the department queried the Russian ambassador here several times about suspicions that Russian companies were smuggling Iraqi crude.

"The Russians have told us that this ship is privately owned and that an investigation on the Russian side is under way. The Russians have not provided us, thus far, with the results of their own investigation," Mr. Foley said.

"The Russian government has also requested consular access to its Russian-nationality crew on the tanker and consular access has been granted. We're working now to make the necessary arrangements."

Post-Persian Gulf war sanctions by the United Nations prohibit Iraqi oil exports, except for limited amounts for sale in exchange for humanitarian supplies. The United Nations has kept the sanctions in place because Saddam refuses to comply with postwar disarmament agreements.

Russia, long a strategic ally of Iraq, wants economic sanctions lifted so it can collect long-overdue payments for weapons sold to the regime before the 1991 war.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey stopped the Russian vessel Wednesday night just outside the Persian Gulf in the Gulf of Oman in international waters between Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

The MIF boarding party remained in control of the ship last night while officials searched for a Gulf country willing to accept the vessel. Under MIF procedures, the shipment, used to power diesel engines, will be downloaded and sold to cover the operation's cost. The host country can keep or return the ship to the private Russian shipper.

Adm. Quigley said the multinational force detained the ship based on intelligence reports and then confirmed suspicions through an examination of navigational gear that gives some indication of where the ship had been.

A sample was taken, but an analysis to determine what part of the world produced it had not been completed last night.

"There is enough evidence there, from those deck logs, from the communication logs, and stuff of that sort, to say that we believe this vessel is carrying contraband," Adm. Quigley said. "We feel comfortable enough in making the decision to divert, based on what we have found so far."

Adm. Quigley said that in 1999 the interception force made queries to over 2,400 ships, boarded 700, and 19 separate times diverted those ships for further investigation.

"We would like to send a message to all smugglers that we're always watching, and we have a very good chance of catching you," he said.

"How effective is it? We have diverted many ships in nine years and confiscated much contraband. Ultimately, what that equates to is money that does not go into the coffers of Saddam Hussein and forces compliance of the U.N. Security Council resolution. That's the major element."

Navy 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain said, "The suspected sanctions violator, which was tracked beginning with its departure from Iraqi water until its interception, is believed to be carrying petroleum products of Iraqi origin prohibited from export by U.N. sanctions."

Washington-Moscow relations have soured in recent years. Russia strongly objected to the expansion of NATO to countries that once made up the old Warsaw Pact.

Then, it saw a reliable ally, Serbia, bombed for 78 days by NATO warplanes. Last year, a Russian Embassy official was caught eavesdropping on conversations inside the State Department. The department is investigating how a listening device came to be planted in a conference room.

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