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Last summer, the disappearance of a cargo ship in the Baltic Sea prompted international speculation about a secret Russian arms sale to the Middle East gone bad.

The Russian Navy says the "Arctic Sea" was carrying only timber from Finland to Algeria when it was hijacked by six armed pirates, most of them ethnic Russians living in the same neighborhood in the Estonian capital Tallinn. Moscow says it freed the ship's crew after the vessel was discovered off the west coast of Africa.

But reports from Israel at the time said the "Arctic Sea" was initially intercepted by the Mossad intelligence service, and that the Israelis warned the Kremlin to stop its shipment -- or they would seize it themselves.

The alleged pirates claim they were hired to conduct temporary environmental work -- gathering evidence of illegal pollution from ships -- and were training on a rubber boat in the Baltic Sea when a storm blew them off course. They say they were rescued by the "Arctic Sea" and set up, part of a cover meant to save the Kremlin embarrassment. The men are awaiting trial in a Moscow jail, facing more than 20 years in prison on charges of kidnapping and piracy.

Now a handwritten letter allegedly penned by one of the jailed men is being circulated. Igor Borisov was an unemployed roofer before the "Arctic Sea" incident. The letter with his signature reiterates the defendants' version, and appeals to the international community to take seriously their concerns over pollution in the Baltic Sea.

"Saving the Baltic Sea from chemical and radioactive pollution is one of today's most important strategic tasks," the letter says.

"We know how to save the Baltic Sea basin from serious environmental catastrophe," it says. "We ecologists…decided to describe the real truth those actively seeking to cover it up are afraid of seeing and hearing." The letter doesn't indicate who's guilty of the cover-up.

In Tallinn, Alexei Bartenev, the brother of another of the alleged hijackers, says he received Borisov's letter by regular mail, saying it's meant to draw attention to the defendants' plight. "They're trying to make it clear they're no kind of pirates," he says. Bartenev says the men are being held in relatively good conditions, but under "complete isolation."

"All they were trying to do was their jobs," he says.

-- Gregory Feifer

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