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By John Helmer in Moscow

Port logs for the MV Arctic Sea — the small Turkish-built, Russian-owned vessel recently reported at the centre of an alleged piracy and extortion attempt — reveal that the timber-carrier has been making regular voyages between Finnish ports and either Algerian or French Mediterranean ports for the past three years. However, the disappearance reported to have occurred between July 24 and August 24, triggering a spate of feverish speculation in Tel Aviv and London about secret missile smuggling, appears not to be the first time the Arctic Sea has disappeared; or at least gone missing from the maritime record known as the international Automatic Identification System (AIS).

Each year recently, according to AIS records, the vessel appears to be missing from the logs in the Mediterranean for up to 20 days at a time. In April of this year, the Arctic Sea is missing from AIS port-call records between April 1, when it transited the Gibraltar Straits, moving east, and April 11, when it returned through the straits, moving west. A similar gap in the log records appeared a year earlier, between February 13, 2008, when the Arctic Sea sailed east past Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, and 20 days later, on March 4, when it transited the Gibraltar Straits moving westwards. In 2007, the gap in the logs appears between April 26, when the vessel entered the Mediterranean, and May 14, when it exited. In all cases, the vessel appears to have taken on cargo at Loviisa and Kotka (Finland), and Tallinn (Estonia).

Maritime industry experts say that gaps in AIS records and port logs may not be of any significance, and don’t necessarily warrant suspicion. According to one source, AIS coverage is not universal, and AISLive must obtain the data from traffic management authorities, not all of whom make them public. He speculates that a “missing” period of 20 days “between Gibraltar transits would fit perfectly with the vessels voyaging to Algeria or another North African port (Egypt also buys a lot of timber from Russia, Baltic states and Finland); discharging; and returning back to Gibraltar. North African ports are not renowned for the speed of discharge.” Although the Arctic Sea has regularly identified port-calls at such Algerian ports as Bejaia and Oran, it has not been identified over the past several years at other North African country ports. The expert source cautions against speculation. “AIS is intended for ships to be able to identify each other, and for VTMS [Vehicle Traffic Management Systems] to recognise ships. It is not, and was never intended to be a universal tracking system; its use for that purpose is highly flawed. Not every port is equipped with a VTMS or an AIS system, and so there will be no reports available when the ship calls to those ports. There will also be times when even where a port AIS system is in place it will be inoperative because of breakdown of the system or of individual ships AIS. There would also be good commercial reasons for a ship to switch its AIS off so as to avoid its position being known to charterers.”

Captain Victor Karpenkov, the Arkhangelsk-based manager of the Russian division of Solchart, the Arctic Sea’s owner, said today the gaps in the AIS records are “yet another hoax, after the claim that the ship was carrying the S-300 [anti-missile defence system]. I won’t even comment on this, because obviously this sounds foolish.” He was asked to say where the Arctic Sea was in the three time-periods that are missing AIS locations. He referred the questions to Solchart headquarters in Helsinki.

In Helsinki, two of the registered owners of the Solchart group, Victor Matveyev and Vladimir Voronov, were also asked to say where the Arctic Sea was during the three “missing” periods identified by AIS. Voronov said: “I am not in a position to tell you anything”, and referred calls to Matveyev. Asked twice to identify the ports of call in the three time periods, Matveyev hung up the telephone without answering.

The Russian authorities have sought this week to end speculation about the Arctic Sea with official releases. Yesterday Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov termed reports in the Israeli and UK press, claiming the vessel had been carrying a secret cargo of missiles for Iran, “a complete lie”. The Investigation Committee of the federal Prosecutor-General announced that “investigators have thoroughly searched the cargo on board the ship, and found only lumber. No cargo has been found except that registered in the consignment log.” The vessel is due to arrive at Novorossiysk later this week.

Kaliningrad sources add that it was improbable that secret cargoes could have been loaded at Kaliningrad, where Arctic Sea was berthed at the start of July, because getting such cargoes from Russia into Kaliningrad would require overland transit by rail through European Union and Lithuanian monitoring. When the Arctic Sea was berthed at Kaliningrad between July 1 and 17 — according to the AIUS logs — it was the first time recorded for the vessel at that port in the past five years.

Speculation that the Arctic Sea had disappeared, or was missing, as the media reported last month, have been rejected by a range of Russian government sources, as well as the maritime authorities in Malta, where the vessel is registered. What this means is that the secret services of several governments were not as blinded by the lack of AIS plots as the media were.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, has pointed out that the press speculation was “nothing more than Russophobia. Kaliningrad is rubbish too. If the Finns packed guided missiles in along with the timber, that would be up to them. Any information vacuum always tends to be filled with the wildest rumors.”

According to Rogozin, from August 11, NATO and Russia were jointly cooperating in tracking the vessel by satellite and other means. “The next day the head of our military liaison group with NATO, General Victor Sinoyev, rang me. NATO colleagues had sent him the coordinates of a ship they believed to be the Arctic Sea. I immediately passed the data on to the head of the General Staff and the head of the fleet in Moscow. They tallied with the data our own people had gathered by then. Then we refined the coordinates with NATO on a daily basis: the speed of the vessel, the direction. The Arctic Sea was steering towards Brazil but suddenly changed course at the Cape Verde islands and headed full steam for the African coast. We assumed the pirates were headed for Senegal, Gambia or Guinea-Bissau. It was our task to stop them from reaching the coast.”

The Russian government officials have had more experience than their NATO counterparts of the difficulties of rescuing seamen held hostage on the African shore, because two episodes remain fresh in memory. Nigerian government officials held 12 crewmen hostage for two years after they had been taken off the African Pride, an oil tanker accused of involvement in local government-sponsored oil smuggling. They were released in December 2005 after a secret ransom was paid to the Nigerians. In August 2006, Guinean government officials briefly detained in Conakry port the Luchegorsk, also an oil tanker, and its 19-man crew, with the aim of extracting a ransom.

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