Drama on the Baltic Sea: Polish Coast Guard Fires on German Cruise Ship

After a scrape in Polish waters over duty-free alcohol and cigarettes, the Polish Coast Guard fired warning shots at a German cruise ship. Now diplomats are working to untangle the mess.

Nobody would ever accuse Poland and Germany of having an easy relationship. But things have rarely escalated to this degree.

In an incident just now hitting the German front pages, the Polish coast guard fired on a private German cruise ship on Tuesday as it fled Polish waters with two plainclothes customs officials from Poland on board. Whether the shots were merely blanks, as the Polish claim, or whether live ammunition was used, as the head of the German cruise company alleges, remains unclear. Regardless, the incident threatens to escalate into a full-scale diplomatic tiff.

The tale starts with a simple cruise. The "Adler Dania," was on its way to visit the Polish Baltic Sea port of Swinoujscie and hoping to sell some duty free alcohol and cigarettes to its predominantly German passengers on the way. Hardly an unheard of mission in the Baltic Sea.

Inasmuch as the ship's itinerary included a brief stop in Poland, Polish plainclothes customs officials boarded the ship in the German port of Heringsdorf to have a closer look. They waited until the ship had entered the port of Swinoujscie before making their move.

It didn't go well. According to the German captain -- as related to SPIEGEL ONLINE by the Adler shipping company's director Alwin Müller -- the two Polish customs officials presented questionable identification and demanded to inspect the ship's alcohol and cigarette supplies. The captain, Heinz Arendt, thereupon elected to turn his ship around and bolt for German waters. He was apparently concerned, in light of the customs raid, that the ship's entire stock of goodies would be confiscated were he to land at the port. It has happened before, the cruise company complains.

The two sides in the altercation have competing versions as to what happened next. Müller claims that three to four shots were fired on the ship from a hand-held weapon. A spokesman for the Polish coast guard assured SPIEGEL ONLINE that only two warning shots from a flare gun were fired.

The discrepancies don't end there. The Polish side claims that the ship actually landed in Swinoujscie -- leading the Polish press to breathlessly claim that the Polish customs officials were prevented from disembarking against their will. Reuters has even reported that kidnapping charges were to be filed against Captain Arendt. Charges have already been filed against the Germans for attempting to dodge customs and hindering customs officials from doing their jobs.

Au contraire, counter the Germans. The Polish customs officials did not have the appropriate identification. As such, the officers are being charged with being in Germany illegally and for forcing their way into parts of the ship where passengers were not allowed.

Diplomats on both sides are eager to downplay the incident. An investigation into the incident has been started, but it will take place "in the spirit of the neighborly atmosphere which characterizes German-Polish relations," a spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry said.

Nevertheless, the incident underscores the somewhat difficult relationship Germany sometimes has with its eastern neighbor. Poles are particularly sensitive when it comes to World War II and German efforts to establish a museum documenting the fates of Germans who were booted out of Poland following the war are regularly met with disapproval. A planned Baltic Sea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany -- bypassing Poland -- has likewise caused tensions.

Short cruises over to Poland have become a popular German pasttime since Poland joined the European Union in 2004. Polish cigarettes sold on board are a bargain, with smokers saving up to €25 per carton. Some 500,000 passengers take advantage of the bargain cruises each year.

With reporting from Lisa Erdmann and Olaf Sundermeyer

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