The hijackers of the 'Arctic Sea' being arrested.Photo: AP
A Russian cargo ship that disappeared in the Channel was carrying arms to Iran and was being tracked by Mossad, The Sunday Times reported, quoting unnamed sources in both Russia and Israel.
The ship, called The Arctic Sea and flying a Maltese flag of convenience, was officially carrying a cargo of timber worth £1.3m and vanished along the route from Finland to Algeria on July 24. It was recovered west of Africa on August 17 when eight alleged pirates were arrested on suspicion of hijacking the vessel.
Moscow vehemently denied that the ship was carrying any cargo apart from the timber. It said the ship was taken by criminals who demanded a £1m ransom.
But Israeli and Russian sources quoted by the Times claim 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, Mossad tipped off the Russian government that the shipment had been sold by former military officers who have crossed over to crime.
The Kremlin then reportedly ordered a rescue mission which 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.
A Russian military official is quoted as saying "The official version is ridiculous and was given to allow the Kremlin to save face, I've spoken to people close to the investigation and they've pretty much confirmed Mossad's involvement. It's laughable to believe all this fuss was over a load of timber. I'm not alone in believing that it was carrying weapons to Iran."
Sources in Moscow further suggested that Mossad may have used proxies to hijack the ship by establishing a criminal gang which, most likely, was not aware of the true reasoning behind 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 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."
Israeli military sources told the paper that a decision to inform Russia 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 tilting the power equilibrium in the region, and has been exerting continuous pressure on Russia not to sell the system to Iran.
But in Kaliningrad, former high-ranking Russian military officers impoverished since the fall of the Soviet empire have been said to trade in Russian weaponry clandestinely, without Moscow's approval or knowledge.
The visit of President Shimon Peres to Russia began a day after the ship was rescued. Peres discussed at length the issue of Russian arms sales to Israel's enemies, and a statement issued by his office after the meeting said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised that Russia would not supply arms to Iran or Syria.
A Russian official said the timing of the president's visit to Russia was not coincidental.
"Clearly the Israelis played a role in the whole Arctic Sea saga," a military source is quoted by the Times as saying. "Peres used the incident as a bargaining chip over the issue of arms sales to Arab states, while Israel allowed the Kremlin a way out with its claims to have successfully foiled a piracy incident."