Arctic Sea boat 248.88.
(photo credit: )
Russia's foreign minister has rejected speculation that a hijacked Russian-crewed freighter was carrying S-300 missiles possibly destined for Iran.
The Arctic Sea was allegedly hijacked in the Baltic Sea in late July after leaving a Finnish port. Russian navy vessels intercepted the ship weeks later off Cape Verde, thousands of kilometers from the Algerian port where it was purportedly supposed to deliver a load of timber.
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 destined for Iran or Syria.
But Lavrov said Tuesday that "the presence of S-300s on board the Arctic Sea cargo ship is a complete lie," the state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
A Sunday Times report claimed that the Russian cargo ship was carrying arms to Iran and was being tracked by Mossad, quoting unnamed sources in both Russia and Israel.
Moscow said the ship was taken by criminals who demanded a Â£1 million ransom.
But Israeli and Russian sources quoted by the Sunday Times claimed the ship had been loaded with S-300 missiles, Russia's most advanced anti-aircraft weapon, while it was docking for repairs in the Russian port of Kaliningrad.
According to the paper, the Mossad tipped off the Russian government that the shipment had been sold by former military officers who had crossed over to crime.
The Kremlin then reportedly ordered a rescue mission that involved destroyers and submarines, to avoid the embarrassment of the advanced system being sold by criminals, so military officials believe a "cover story" was concocted.
Sources in Moscow further suggested that the Mossad may have used proxies to hijack the ship, establishing a criminal gang that, most likely, was not aware of the true reason for its mission. "The best way for the Israelis to block the cargo from reaching Iran would have been to create a lot of noise around the ship," a former army officer told the paper.
"Once the news of the hijack broke, the game was up for the arms dealers. The Russians had to act. That's why I don't rule out [the] Mossad being behind the hijacking. It stopped the shipment and gave the Kremlin a way out so that it can now claim it mounted a brilliant rescue mission," the Russian officer said.
IDF sources told the British paper that a decision to inform Moscow of the weapons shipment followed intelligence that the ship was being loaded with the system in Kaliningrad, a port notorious for gun runners.
Israel views the S-300, considered the world's most advanced anti-aircraft missile system, as a weapon that would tilt the power equilibrium in the region, and has been exerting continuous pressure on Russia not to sell the system to Iran.