Russian foreign minister denies S-300 missiles on hijacked Russian freighter headed to Algeria

Associated Press and Associated Press

MOSCOW – Russia’s foreign minister on Tuesday rejected speculation that a hijacked Russian-crewed freighter was carrying S-300 missiles, possibly destined for Iran.

Russia said the freighter Arctic Sea was seized by pirates in the Baltic Sea in late July after leaving a Finnish port. Russian naval vessels intercepted the ship weeks later off Cape Verde, thousands of kilometers from the Algerian port where it was supposed to deliver a load of timber.

But an array of questions continue to cloud the incident. Some observers have suggested that the seizure of a ship in the crowded Baltic, especially one carrying a comparatively low-value cargo, was unlikely as an act of straightforward piracy.

A Russian shipping expert and an EU anti-piracy official have speculated that the vessel was carrying a clandestine cargo, possibly S-300 surface-to-air missiles for Iran or Syria.

But Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday the rumors of S-300s on board the Arctic Sea were ‘completely untrue.’

Separately, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s spokeswoman, Nataliya Timakova, also dismissed the claims that the Arctic Sea was shipping missiles as ‘speculations,’ and said Russian investigators would provide answers to questions about its cargo once the ship arrives in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.

Russia’s top investigative body, the general prosecutor’s Investigative Committee, said in a statement that it had already had made a ‘thorough’ inspection of the ship’s load of timber and found no unauthorized cargo.

Suspicions that the Arctic Sea was carrying something other than timber also arose when Russia sent three heavy-lift air force jets to Cape Verde after the ship was found. The planes had far more capacity than would have been needed to bring the eight alleged hijackers and most crew members back to Russia.

Four of the crew members remained on board the Arctic Sea to help guide the ship to Novorossiisk.

The crew members have been kept incommunicado. The eight suspects have been charged with piracy and are in custody, but Russian authorities have not given details of what they contend happened aboard the ship.

Lavrov said Russia would invite officials from Malta, under whose flag the Arctic Sea sailed, to take part in the inspection.

‘All this will be transparent and I hope that all will be convinced that the rumors you refer to are groundless,’ Lavrov was quoted as saying at a news conference.

Moscow has signed a contract to sell S-300s to Iran, but Russian officials said the missiles hadn’t been delivered yet. Israel vehemently objects to Iran acquiring the missiles, which would significantly boost Iran’s defense capacities.

The S-300, similar to the U.S. Patriot missile, is capable of shooting down aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads at ranges of over 90 miles (145 kilometers) and at altitudes of about 90,000 feet (27,000 meters).

Israeli President Shimon Peres held talks in Moscow with President Dmitry Medvedev two days after the Arctic Sea was taken by the Russian navy. He said after the meeting that Medvedev had promised to reconsider selling S-300s to Iran.’