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Missing Ship Critic Flees Russia

  • Gregory Feifer

The plot thickens around the "Arctic Sea" and its cargo.

The plot thickens around the "Arctic Sea" and its cargo.

A maritime expert who suggested a missing cargo ship may have been carrying illegal weapons has fled Russia, saying he'd been warned to leave or face arrest.

It's the latest development in a mysterious case that's involved an international hunt on the high seas and many unanswered questions.

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online "Sovfracht Marine Bulletin," was among the first to have brought attention to the Maltese-flagged "Arctic Sea" after it disappeared off the radar screen in early August.

The authorities say the ship's 15 Russian crewmembers were seized by pirates shortly after they left port in Finland. The vessel, bound for Algeria, was listed as carrying a cargo of timber worth $1.8 million.

Officials say the Russian Navy freed the crew on August 17 after it was discovered off the west coast of Africa. Eight men, most from Estonia, have been arrested and charged with piracy.

Voitenko was among the earliest and most outspoken of those casting doubt on the official version, questioning why pirates would risk seizing a relatively inexpensive cargo in one of Europe's busiest shipping lanes.

He suggested the ship had been carrying a secret arms shipment as part of a private business deal by state officials.

There's speculation the ship may have been intercepted by Israel's intelligence service, Mossad, to stop it from delivering illegal arms to the Middle East.

Voitenko left Russia on the first flight to Istanbul on September 2 after receiving a nighttime telephone call advising him to leave. He's declined to identify the callers, but told news agencies they were "serious people," and hinted they were from the special services. He said the callers told him people involved in the case were furious at him for speaking publicly.

The crewmembers have refused to speak to reporters.

The Russian authorities say they're sending the Arctic Sea to the Russian port of Novorosiisk for inspection.