Pulled by a tugboat puffing plumes of smoke, a convoy of barges moves slowly on the Danube, somewhere in southeastern Romania.
Although it’s winter, there’s been little snow or rain and the water level is low. The tugboat stops, unhooks the barges, then begins pulling them in pairs across a stretch of the river that is particularly shallow.
Several barges, filled with ore or coal, wait for hours for their turn. Some pull by the bank, guarded only by a couple of crew members.
This is a scene repeated daily on the Romanian sector of the lower Danube and involves ships from various nations, as the Danube is one of Europe’s main transport routes.
It was a Ukrainian barge convoy that performed this drill on January 4. What happened next is still under investigation by Romanian authorities.
The Ukrainian owner of the convoy, the Danube Shipping Company, said one of its barges -- UDP-1724 -- isolated by the rest of the convoy while waiting to be tugged, was robbed after being boarded by a group of knife-wielding men.
The company said the attackers stole money, fuel, alcohol, and cigarettes and threatened to throw the skipper overboard. No crew members were harmed.
The company filed a complaint with the Romanian River Police, saying it had been the victim of a “pirate attack,” leading the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry to summon Romania’s ambassador in Kyiv.
'They Are Criminals'
Speaking to RFE/RL, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Dikusarov stopped short of calling the incident an act of piracy.
"We confirm these facts, these events, that occurred on January 4. We don’t say that they are pirates," Dikusarov said. "They are criminals who attack ships, including Ukrainian ones. ... Firstly, we told our embassy in Bucharest to contact Romanian authorities and get an explanation for the incident involving the Ukrainian ship on the Danube. We were assured that the investigation is ongoing. We are waiting for a reply."
A Romanian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Doris Mircea, said that an official Ukrainian complaint was handed to the embassy in Kyiv on January 26 and that an investigation was started.
"The request has been forwarded to Romania's Interior Ministry, which is the institution in charge of investigating such complaints," Mircea said. "The Romanian Embassy in Kyiv has informed the Ukrainian foreign minister about the ongoing investigation into an alleged attack on a Ukrainian transport barge in the Romanian sector of the Danube."
Mircea said it was the first time an official complaint about such an incident had been filed. The Interior Ministry in Bucharest said in an e-mail to RFE/RL that there is no record of previous similar incidents, despite reports in the Bulgarian and Ukrainian media about Romanian “pirates” robbing passing transport ships.
So, do Danube pirates actually exist?
If by this one means something akin to Somali pirates, armed to the teeth and demanding millions of dollars in ransom, then no, they don’t.
Media reports say the crews on transport ships often steal and sell their own cargo and then blame the plundering on “pirates.”
An official close to the investigation into the alleged attack on the Ukrainian barge told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that it is not piracy but small-time contraband that is taking place along the river.
Impoverished fishermen from Romanian villages along the Danube sometimes climb aboard passing barges to buy or exchange goods.
Contraband scrap metal has become one of the most-prized commodities. They buy it cheaply from sailors and then sell it on the Romanian market for a handsome profit. Sailors, in turn, pocket the money made from stealing from their own cargo.
Such exchanges are often sealed over shots of vodka or homemade moonshine, or samagon, as it is called by the ethnic Russian fishermen who populate Romanian villages along the Danube.
Sometimes tempers flare and violence ensues.
Most likely, the official said, this is what happened on January 4. The Ukrainian barge, while waiting for the tugboat to pull it across the shallow portion of the river, may have stopped in a place that wasn’t under the supervision of Romanian police, in order to “do a little business” with the fishermen – known as lipovans – waiting on the bank.
Fishermen, of course, almost always carry knives, which are vital tools of their trade.
Whatever deal they struck probably soured along the way and the ensuing argument descended into violence. The exact details, however, are still being probed, the official said.
The official added that due to personnel cuts, an average of three policemen cover 50-kilometer stretches of the Danube, increasing the opportunities for theft. To address the problem, the official said ships waiting to be tugged should dock only at river spots supervised by Romanian authorities. That would result in less profit, but more safety, for the crews.
RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service contributed to this report