Russia unloads 'piracy' evidence from Arctic Sea

Russia unloads 'piracy' evidence from Arctic Sea

Russia on Friday unloaded evidence from the Arctic Sea ship onto a Russian warship, as mystery still surrounded the identity of its cargo one month after it was recovered from alleged pirates, AFP reported.

Russian investigators said evidence, including arms and masks which showed the vessel was prey to piracy, was now on its way to Russia for use in a trial against the suspected hijackers.

"The evidence will be delivered to a Russian port, where the warship Ladny and its escorting vessels will dock," the investigative committee said in a statement posted on its website.

"It includes ammunition used by the suspected pirates to capture the ship and the speedboat from which they boarded it. The boat was camouflaged on board the Arctic Sea under a wood frame and canvas," it said.

Speculation has raged that the Arctic Sea -- which vanished for several weeks after being allegedly hijacked by pirates in July -- may have carried a secret cargo, including missile systems covertly bound for Iran.

While investigators said earlier this week that they had completed their search of the ship, which carried a stated cargo of timber for delivery to Algeria, they have yet to release the results.

The vessel has yet to go to port since its recovery by the Russian navy off the coast of Africa in August.

Russian officials said it would be taken to Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, but then without explanation they said it would be taken to the Canary Islands instead.

Spain on Friday confirmed the vessel was in international waters off its Canary Islands, near the port of Las Palmas, waiting to dock. But it later said Russian authorities did not want the ship to stop in Spain.

"Russian authorities have just informed us that they do not need the Arctic Sea to stop in Spain, in Las Palmas," a Spanish foreign ministry source told AFP.

The port authority on the island of La Palma had earlier granted permission for the ship to dock at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT) but Spain's merchant shipping department had objected for reasons it did not specify, a representative for the authority said.

Meanwhile, the RIA-Novosti news agency quoted a military-diplomatic source in Madrid as saying the evidence unloaded from the Arctic Sea also included documents which could provide clues on the Arctic Sea's mission.

"All the documents which could shed light on the investigation were loaded onto the Black Sea Fleet tanker ship Iman," the source was quoted as saying.

"Everything the investigation considered necessary to seize as material evidence has been sent to Russia," he added.

Moscow has said nothing suspicious was found aboard the ship in initial inspections after its recapture and has vehemently denied reports that the Arctic Sea was smuggling arms to Iran.

Officially, the ship was carrying a load of timber worth 1.16 million euros (1.7 million dollars) from Finland to Algeria.

But its mysterious seizure in a busy European shipping lane, the huge international effort to recover it and Moscow's detention of the crew after their return to Russia have fuelled speculation of an illicit cargo.

Eight suspects -- including Russians, Estonians and Latvians -- have been accused of hijacking the Arctic Sea, a Maltese-flagged vessel with a 15-man Russian crew, in Swedish waters in late July.

The suspects have denied the charges of piracy and kidnapping and are now awaiting trial in Moscow.

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