Finland denies missing ship carries nuclear material

17th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Russia and NATO join forces to hunt for hijacked ship; Finland dismisses 'stupid rumours' of secret nuclear cargo.

Praia – Finnish authorities dismissed talk on Sunday that the missing vessel Arctic Sea was bearing a cargo of nuclear material, as Russia and NATO joined forces in an international hunt for the ship, missing since 30 July.

Jukka Laaksonen, head of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, said firefighters conducted radiation tests on the ship – last reported off Cape Verde – at a port in Finland before it began a voyage full of intrigue.

But he dismissed as "stupid rumours" reports in British and Finnish newspapers that the ship could be carrying a "secret" nuclear cargo that could explain why it was attacked on the Baltic Sea before vanishing.

"Some fireman for some reason thought that there might be some radioactivity involved in this shipment and that was a very stupid idea. There was no basis for that," Laaksonen told AFP.

A report on Saturday by Finnish police that the ship's Helsinki-based operator, Solchart Management, had received a ransom demand for the Arctic Sea raised hopes for the its 15-strong Russian crew.

The Financial Times Deutschland newspaper, without citing its source, reported on its website that the demand was for USD 1.5 million (EUR 1.05 million).

"This is the first positive sign that there are intentions to bring back the crew," Russian maritime expert Mikhail Voitenko told AFP.

Yulia Latynina, an anti-Kremlin political commentator and a radio host in Moscow, took a similar view.

"It appears they are looking for a way out of the situation and it appears to mean that the crew will return safe and sound, thank God – and that's the most important."

Russian warships, backed by NATO, are scouring the Atlantic for the ship, which left Finland on 23 July on its way to Algeria with a cargo of sawn timber estimated to be worth EUR 1.16 million (USD 1.7 million).

The Maltese-flagged vessel was last seen off the coast of Cape Verde, officials in the west African archipelago and in France said Friday. But Russia has not confirmed the sighting.

In the Maltese capital Valletta, the Malta Maritime Authority told AFP on Sunday that the island nation was teaming up with Sweden and Finland to launch a criminal investigation into the disappearance.

Russia's envoy to NATO said on Saturday that the transatlantic alliance was working closely with Moscow in the hunt for the ship.

"All information that is full and most likely objective, is instantly sent to Russian navy headquarters" from NATO headquarters in Brussels, Dmitry Rogozin told the RIA Novosti news agency.

NATO's cooperation with Russia – and the fact that Moscow has deployed ships, submarines and satellites to the search – will only fuel speculation about the hijacking, already a rare occurrence in North Atlantic waters.

Experts have debated whether pirates, a mafia quarrel or a commercial dispute were behind the disappearance.

On the night the Arctic Sea left port in Finland last month, eight to 10 masked men boarded the ship between the Swedish islands of Oland and Gotland in the Baltic Sea, Swedish police reported several days after the incident.

Claiming to be anti-drugs police, they tied up the crew and conducted a thorough search of the vessel before reportedly leaving 10 to 12 hours later after freeing the crew.

The last definite trace of the ship was in the early hours of 30 July, when its tracking system put if off the coast of northwestern France.

Then on Friday, European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr said the ship appeared to have been attacked a second time, this time off the coast of Portugal.

Cape Verdean military officials said Friday the ship was about 400 nautical miles (740 kilometres) off one of the archipelago's islands.

One of its military officers told AFP on Saturday that the boat appeared to be heading south at a speed of between 15 and 20 knots.

AFP / Expatica

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