- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

JERUSALEM

The Russian freighter mysteriously hijacked in northern European waters in July and located off the African coast by Russian warships was hijacked by Russia itself, according to the Israeli news agency Ynet.

The Arctic Sea had gone missing after reportedly sailing from Finland to Algeria with a load of timber bound for Algeria. Off Sweden its captain reported being hijacked by eight men. Communication with the vessel was then lost until it was located near Cape Verde three weeks later and boarded by Russian commandos.

Time Magazine on Wednesday quoted Adm. Tarmo Kouts, the European Union’s rapporteur on piracy, as saying that the most likely explanation for the “bizarre” incident was that the vessel was carrying advanced missiles destined for a Muslim country and that its hijacking had been carried out by Israel.

The Ynet article, written by veteran military correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, concludes that the incident was even more bizarre than that. Citing “Russian, European and Middle Eastern sources,” Mr. Ben-Yishai wrote yesterday that the vessel had initially set sail not from Finland but from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic coast where illegal trade in weapons and other items is rife. According to his sources, a deal was struck between Russian and Middle Eastern businessmen for the sale of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, the kind being sought by Iran to defend its nuclear facilities from air attack, as well as X-500 anti-ship missiles. The Kremlin was uninvolved in the deal, writes Mr. Ben-Yishai, but businessmen from the private sector were.

“After the deal was executed,” wrote Mr. Ben-Yishai, “an intelligence agency whose identity so far remains secret learned of the ship’s departure… and transferred an anonymous tip to the Russian authorities.”

Mr. Ben-Yishai does not mention the Mossad but the Israeli espionage agency has been widely referred to in press speculation about the incident. Israeli officials have declined to comment.

The Arctic Sea proceeded from Kaliningrad to Finland to pick up a small load of timber to provide legitimate cover for its voyage. Near Sweden, a small boat carrying eight men pulled alongside and said they were lost at sea. When they were permitted to board the freighter they identified themselves as Swedish police and arrested the crew at gunpoint. The freighter’s crewmen reported that the boarding party spoke Russian among themselves. The vessel was permitted by the hijackers to continue sailing. It passed through the English Channel. It was not boarded by Russian commandos until Aug. 18 when it had reached the African coast. According to Mr. Ben-Yishai, the delay in the “rescue mission” was to permit the vessel to sail beyond the surveillance of the media.

Russia sent eight large cargo planes to bring them back the ship’s cargo, writes Mr. Ben-Yishai, an indication that something other than cheap timber was involved. The “pirates,” whom Mr. Ben-Yishai identified as Russian intelligence officers, were shown on television being roughly handled by security forces when they were brought back to Russia, a seemingly staged performance.

Abraham Rabinovich is a Jerusalem-based journalist.

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