Crew 'welcomed' Russian 'pirates'

Crew 'welcomed' Russian 'pirates'

Eight alleged hijackers of the Russian ship the Arctic Sea were in fact welcomed on board after being rescued in the Baltic Sea, a lawyer claims, BBC reported.

Konstantin Baranovsky, who represents one of the eight men, said the alleged pirates were testing a navigation system on a small boat.

They were then rescued after getting into difficulties, Mr Baranovsky said.

The eight were arrested in mid-August by the Russian navy and taken to Moscow to face kidnapping and piracy charges.

According to Mr Baranovsky, the eight men were welcomed on board the Arctic Sea, as they were Russians, like the ship's crew.

They were offered vodka, and allowed to use the ship's gym.

There were many more parties after that first night as the boat continued its voyage from the Baltic Sea through the English Channel and out into the Atlantic Ocean, Mr Baranovsky said.

That is where the alleged pirates were eventually arrested.

Their ill-fated venture had apparently begun on the morning of 24 July when they set off from the coast of Estonia in a Zodiac inflatable boat.

Mr Baranvosky's client Dmitri Bartenev told him they were testing out a navigation system before starting environmental work off the Estonian coast.

Mr Bartenev explicitly instructed his lawyer not to reveal the name of the boat's owner to the media.

"It is important for this case as the owner can tell the truth about what Dmitri and the seven others were doing at sea," said Mr Baranovsky.

"He (the owner) asked them to go out to sea."

As they headed out into the Baltic Sea they say they were hit by bad weather which damaged the navigation system.

They lost their way and were eventually rescued by the crew of the Arctic Sea after night had fallen.

The eight men, now facing prison sentences of more than 20 years, say they were also given access to a small gym and swimming pool on board the boat as they sailed towards Africa.

But their free cruise in the sun was marred by increasing concerns about where they were going and why they had not stopped at any of the ports along the way so they could return home to Estonia.

They had originally been told they were going to North Africa.

In his statement, Mr Bartenev did say he saw a large amount of wood on board which is what the ship was supposed to have been carrying, although he said he did not actually look inside the hold.

The level of detail given in this account is striking and it is likely to fuel suspicions that the eight alleged pirates were set up to try to save Russia the embarrassment of explaining what the Arctic Sea was really carrying.

Sources close to Israeli intelligence have already told the BBC the piracy story was a cover to give the Russians time to intercept the ship which was allegedly transporting an air defence system for Iran.

Russia has strongly denied that the cargo boat was carrying S-300 missiles.

In one further intriguing detail, the lawyer Konstantin Baranovsky told the BBC he had seen crucial evidence given by the Arctic Sea crew to Russian investigators.

"In their evidence some of the crew said that two days before they (the alleged pirates) were rescued, about twenty men who looked like police had boarded the ship from a speed-boat," he said.

"The crew said these men were looking for something."

But then, according to Mr Baranovsky, the crew added they had been told to say this by the alleged pirates.

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