A Ship Comes Loaded With Timber… or Weapons?

Picture: Moyan Brenn

In the summer of 2009 a cargo ship carrying timber was hijacked off the coast of Sweden. Piracy has been unheard of in the Baltic Sea for hundreds of years, and this was the first known incident of its kind for centuries. For two weeks the ship MV Arctic Sea went missing, prompting Russia to deploy its navy to locate it. Many of the details of the hijacking still remain a mystery and with no credible explanation of its disappearance many have raised the question of whether the ship was only carrying timber, or whether there was something else in the cargo.

Registered in Malta, the merchant vessel cargo ship MV Arctic Sea was owned by a Finnish company at the time of the incident. The ship was manned by a Russian crew of 15 as it set out from Jakobstad, Finland, carrying a cargo of timber towards its final destination of Béjaïa, Algeria.

On July 24, 2009, the ship was sailing through Swedish territorial waters, between the islands of Öland and Gotland, when it was allegedly boarded by outsiders. According to the ship’s owner, a group of 8-10 men approached the ship in inflatable boats, claiming to be Swedish police officers. The men apprehended the crew, searched the ship, and then left. The Swedish government denies that their police force was involved in the boarding of the vessel.

MV Arctic Sea continued its journey through the English Channel, and the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency had the last radio contact with the vessel as it passed through the Strait of Dover on July 28. Two days later the vessel sent out its last Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal. After this, reports of the vessel’s location became sporadic and uncertain. Coastal tracking radar picked up the ship’s signal near Brest, France, and a patrol aircraft observed the ship off the Portuguese coast. A hijack alert was issued by Interpol on August 3 after the ship failed to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar. The ship and its crew seemed to have vanished and it never arrived at its final destination, the port of Béjaïa, where it was due to arrive on August 5.

The Russian Navy dispatched ships from its Black Sea Fleet to search for the vessel. Almost two weeks later, on August 14, the ship was reportedly sighted outside Cape Verde, far from its original destination in Algeria. A Russian frigate picked up the 15 crew members for questioning on August 17. It was discovered that, contrary to initial reports, the eight hijackers had remained on the vessel after boarding off the coast of Sweden. The reports and statements following the retrieval of the vessel and the apprehension of the hijackers are in many ways contradictory and vague. The mystery surrounding the incident has naturally led to a lot of speculation about why a trade vessel carrying solely timber was hijacked, and why the Russian authorities showed such interest in the vessel.

One theory is that the Arctic Sea was illegally shipping anti-aircraft weapons and cruise missiles destined for Iran, and that the hijackers were working for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, to prevent the cargo from reaching its destination. Other speculations suggest the vessel was carrying cargo linked with Syria’s aim to purchase MiG-31 jetfighters from Russia. EU rapporteur on piracy and former commander of the Estonian defence forces Tarmo Kouts has suggested that “Only the presence of cruise missiles on board the ship can explain Russia’s strange behaviour in this whole story”, and also noted that the naval unit dispatched by Russia in the search for the ship was “significantly stronger than that engaged in a recent Somali piracy crisis”. In a United States diplomatic cables leak, a senior Spanish prosecutor described the Arctic Sea incident as “a clear example” of arms trafficking.

There are several other reported incidents of arms trafficking by sea involving Russia. For instance, in January 2012, customs officials in Cyprus stopped a Syria-bound Russian ammunition ship. In June 2012, a cargo ship carrying Russian attack helicopters for Syria was forced to turn back to port after its insurance cover was withdrawn at the request of the British government. In February this year, Finnish customs officials discovered tank parts in a container on board a ship en route from Russia to Syria. There have also been several reports claiming that Russia is shipping weapons from their naval ports on the Black Sea to the Russian naval port in Syrian Tartus. While some Western countries have been pushing for an embargo on Russian arms supplies to Syria, Russia has said that it will continue selling weapons to Damascus.

A recent Sipri study revealed how arms dealers target Western-owned maritime companies, and how it is relatively easy for traffickers to hide arms and drugs amongst legitimate cargo. According to the report’s co-author Hugh Griffiths, “So many shipping containers pass through the world’s ports every day that only a fraction can be inspected”. However, whether the incident involving MV Arctic Sea was an example of illegal arms trafficking or just petty piracy, will probably never be known. But the incident highlights the issue of the growing illegal arms trade by sea.


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