Russian Envoy Talks About Arctic Sea Hijacking 'We Found Nothing Conspicuous on Board'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, 45, says rumors surrounding the cargo of the hijacked freighter Arctic Sea stem from "Russophobia" and that the case highlights the need for close cooperation to stop piracy between Moscow and NATO.

SPIEGEL: Did NATO support Russia in the search for the freighter Arctic Sea?

Rogozin: I met NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on August 11, at his request, and told him that Russia was in a difficult position, we were looking for a ship, and asked if NATO could help.

SPIEGEL: What was the answer?

Rogozin: Rasmussen was not fully informed about the matter but promised help. The next day the head of our military liaison group with NATO, General Victor Sinoyev, rang me. NATO colleagues had sent him the coordinates of a ship they believed to be the Arctic Sea. I immediately passed the data on to the head of the General Staff and the head of the fleet in Moscow. They tallied with the data our own people had gathered by then.

SPIEGEL: What happened then?

Rogozin: Then we refined the coordinates with NATO on a daily basis: the speed of the vessel, the direction. The Arctic Sea was steering towards Brazil but suddenly changed course at the Cape Verde islands and headed full steam for the African coast. We assumed the pirates were headed for Senegal, Gambia or Guinea-Bissau. It was our task to stop them from reaching the coast.

SPIEGEL: Public statements made in Russia didn't make things look as clear as you state. President Dmitry Medvedev, for example, claimed the Baltic Sea is safe and that there are no pirates there. But the next day the defense minister said, Yes, there are pirates there. Was the president misled?

Rogozin: The defense minister didn't mislead him, we had no precise information at that time. The ship was seized by an international gang of hijackers. They managed to board the ship by posing as Swedish police officers. One sailor had time to communicate this by text message. Later they pretended they had left the ship. They forced the captain to tell the shipping company that everything was o.k., that the pirates had left the ship. Medvedev simply didn't know that at that point.

SPIEGEL: Why did the Arctic Sea sail on with its communications system switched off?

Rogozin: The pirates only (broadcast signals) when they were passing through the English Channel because they regarded it as a very difficult thoroughfare. Then they switched everything off again. At this point we realized this was a very strange event and the president then got involved.

SPIEGEL: Russia then dispatched a lot of warships -- all this for a freighter that was only transporting timber?

Rogozin: It was really only carrying timber. This was about ransom money. Special forces from our army boarded the freighter in the night and overwhelmed the pirates. It was a very successful operation.

SPIEGEL: We ask again. Was there really only timber on board?

Rogozin: We found nothing conspicuous on board. And that's the bad news: this was about ransom money. This shows that the fight against piracy along the Somali coast has failed. Various countries have kept on paying ransoms and thereby inspired copycats.

SPIEGEL: The European Commission said the incident was the stuff of Hollywood movies. This wouldn't be a movie about drugs or arms dealing?

Rogozin: The operation itself -- and I followed it hour by hour -- was dramatic. We had to keep concealing the location of our warships, because the pirates wanted to flee and they could hear radio on board and had television.

SPIEGEL: In the United States there's suspicion that there was nuclear material for a dirty bomb on board; in Moscow there was talk of nuclear technology for Syria.

Rogozin: That was ugly speculation. When a country like ours encounters a problem like this, one often gets the most outlandish speculation. One Estonian admiral astonished us with his cynicism and incompetence.

SPIEGEL: ... who do you mean?

Rogozin: I don't want to say the name, but I mean the former head of the Estonian armed forces, the EU rapporteur on piracy.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to Admiral Tarmo Kouts.

Rogozin: He suggested Russia was transporting rockets or guided missiles to Iran on the ship. The admiral of this seafaring power appears to have problems with geography. It's quicker to reach Iran via the Caspian Sea. The speculation that arose about this was simply nonsense, irresponsible.

SPIEGEL: There was also a rumor that the Arctic Sea had loaded an ominous freight in Kaliningrad before it set sail.

Rogozin: It's nothing more than Russophobia. Kaliningrad is rubbish too. If the Finns packed guided missiles in along with the timber, that would be up to them. Any information vacuum always tends to be filled with the wildest rumors.

SPIEGEL: Why weren't the crew allowed to contact their relatives after they were released?

Rogozin: That's normal in a situation like that. Now it's time for the investigators: Did the pirates have helpers? Did everyone in the crew behave properly? That's why the crew had to be isolated at first.

SPIEGEL: Experts regard the supposed ransom demand of $1.5 million as unbelievably low.

Rogozin: That sum was really discussed, it was reported by the Finnish police. But we assumed that it could change, that's why we didn't want to let the pirates get to the African coast.

SPIEGEL: No secret freight, no exchange of gunfire in the rescue -- that's astonishing after this confusion.

Rogozin: The operation happened at night, there was no resistance. The lesson is that we should in the future use the NATO-Russia council to improve coordination among ourselves and to take more effective action against international piracy.

This interview, conducted by Christian Neef, has been translated from the German.


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