Was Israel's secret service behind the unexplained hijacking of a Russian freighter, to foil a secret attempt to ship cruise missiles to Iran?
The mystery surrounding the hijacking of a Russian freighter in July has taken a new twist with reports claiming the pirates were acting in league with the Mossad in order to halt a shipment of modern weapon systems hidden on board and destined for the Islamic republic.
While Israeli and Russian officials dismissed the reports, accounts published in the Russian media sounded more like a spy thriller than a commercial hijacking.
'There is something fishy about this whole story, no doubt about it,' former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh told The Media Line. 'But I can't comment further on this.'
The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported over the weekend that the vessel Arctic Sea had been carrying x-55 cruise missiles and S300 anti-aircraft rockets hidden in secret compartments among its cargo of timber and sawdust.
The eight hijackers originally claimed to be environmentalists when they boarded the ship in the Baltic Sea in Swedish waters on July 24. The Russian navy tracked it down three weeks later and recaptured it near the West African archipelago of Cape Verde on August 17, thousands of kilometers from its original destination of Algeria.
The hijackers were charged late on Friday with kidnapping and piracy, the Interfax news agency reported. Russian authorities have declined to revealing further information about the suspects' motives.
But Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, said allegations that the Arctic Sea had been smuggling weapons were 'fantasy' and 'ridiculous.'
Pravda's Web site reported that the ship had been smuggling cruise missiles to Iran on a well-worn path via Algeria, but a 'power that has relations with Ukraine' had prevented this. Novaya Gazeta reported that the hijackers had been operating on behalf of the Mossad. It also reported that President Shimon Peres's visit to Moscow the day after the Russians recaptured the vessel had been motivated by an urgent request to his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, to refrain from arming Iran.
Israeli officials dismissed the reports as 'classic conspiracy theories,' but defense experts noted that Israel has a record of seizing foreign vessels carrying arms to its enemies.
'This appears as the classic conspiracy theory. I didn't see any evidence for it and so we aren't going to comment,' said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
A spokeswoman for Peres also dismissed the report, saying the visit had been planned long in advance.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, did not rule out Israeli covert action against Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear arms, but doubted Israel would take action against Russian ships.
'It seems that it's full of mystery since everything surrounding Russia is mysterious. And if it's mysterious they dump it on Israel,' he told The Media Line.
Brom, a retired senior intelligence officer, added he did not believe such an operation could enhance the Mossad's image since it appeared to be a failed hijacking.
Israel relies heavily on intelligence. Naval Intelligence monitors vessels together with other agencies in order to detect suspicious behavior of ships around the world. It was this way that Naval Intelligence was able to detect the PLO arms ship Karine A in 2002. Officers noticed its log was not entirely in keeping with a cargo ship and correlated the information with other intelligence to build a picture of an arms shipment in the making. The weapons had originated in Iran.
Israeli security agents routinely stage surprise at- sea boardings of ships headed to Israeli ports to search for terrorists, contraband and stowaways.
In March, Israeli forces reportedly struck a weapons convoy in Sudan, some 1,400 km. from the Jewish state. According to CBS, the weapons were intended for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Nearly 40 people were killed in that attack.