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Russia: Trawler Escapes Norwegian Coast Guard While Still Carrying Inspectors

A high-sea drama is unfolding in Arctic seas, where a Russian trawler has fled Norwegian Coast Guard ships with two abducted inspectors on board. The trawler took flight after the Norwegian Coast Guard stopped it on 15 October on charges of fishing illegally in the Barents Sea’s archipelagos of Spitsbergen. The incident, which has brought a longstanding quarrel to the fore, is threatening to spiral into a major scandal.

Moscow, 19 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The trawler "Elektron" crossed into Russian waters early today, narrowly escaping Norwegian Coast Guard ships after a five-day chase.

The ship was reportedly caught up in a heavy snowstorm but is expected to reach the northern port of Murmansk tomorrow morning.

Norway accuses the "Elektron" of using a fine-mesh net. In order to preserve fish stocks, trawlers are required to use standard nets that allow smaller fish to swim through.

The chase began when the "Elektron" steered a course toward Russia while being escorted by coast guard ships to a Norwegian port. Two Norwegian inspectors were still on board.

Norway has described the matter as serious and is calling for the swift return of the inspectors.

In Russia, some media reported today that Norwegian aircraft had thrown a net over a Russian ship escorting the "Elektron," causing the vessel to go off course. The reports sparked angry comments from Russian Navy officials, who said the nets, which got caught in the ship's propeller, could have endangered the lives of the men on board.

Norway, however, firmly denies any wrongdoing, as the head of the Russian marine coast guard, Aleksandr Sosov, told reporters. “[They say] no nets were thrown from the Norwegian Coast Guard’s aircraft," he said. "They are rejecting all claims from our side on this topic.”

The "Elektron’s" captain, who has been in regular radio contact with the Russian Navy, insists Norway had no right to detain his vessel. He called the inspection attempt a “show of strength” and accused the Norwegian military of trying to sink his vessel with fire bombs.

Norway denies this claim, too, saying the alleged bombs were, in fact, only flares launched to allow Norwegian television to film the trawler at night.

Dmitrii Litvinov, an environmentalist at Greenpeace, said the row over the "Elektron" has more to do with politics than with fishing. “There exists a conflict between the Norwegian side and the Russian side that is not necessarily mentioned aloud," he said. "It is about who makes decisions about fishing at Spitsbergen, and according to what rules, to what laws this is done. So this is a much deeper political issue than the mere size of meshes in the trawler.”

Norway claims full sovereignty over the waters that surround the archipelagos of Spitsbergen and has declared them a protected zone for fishing. Russia does not recognize this claim.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that the issue has long been a subject of friction between both countries. “We have never agreed to the parameters that the Norwegians set unilaterally," he said. "This has been a topic of debate already for many years.”

Russian authorities have vowed to send the two captured inspectors back to Norway as soon as the "Elektron" reaches quieter waters.

The fate of the "Elektron’s" captain, however, is less clear. The chief of police in Troms, a county in northern Norway, wants to charge him with kidnapping.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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