MOSCOW – The Russian maritime expert who was among the first to raise the alarm about the mysterious disappearance of the Arctic Sea freighter said Thursday he has fled the country after receiving a threatening phone call.
Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht, posted an article about the ship's disappearance on Aug. 8. He then speculated that the ship might have been carrying a secret cargo, possibly weapons.
There has been mounting speculation that the freighter was intercepted by Israel to prevent the delivery of missiles or nuclear materials to Iran or Syria.
The Arctic Sea, which left Finland on July 21 with 15 Russian crew members and a cargo of timber, failed to arrive in Algeria on Aug. 4 as scheduled. The ship's signal had disappeared off France's coast in late July.
Russia sent naval vessels Aug. 12 to search for the ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Days later, the government said it had found the Arctic Sea off West Africa and arrested eight hijackers.
But many baffling aspects of the freighter's journey, including a reported attack by masked men in Swedish waters, remain unexplained.
Russia took control of the Maltese-flagged freighter, which it says is now sailing toward a Russian port. The crew members were brought to Moscow for questioning and have been barred from speaking publicly.
Voitenko said he received an anonymous phone call Tuesday night from someone who said he was "fed up" with Voitenko.
"He told me: 'Mikhail, you made a big mistake when you made your announcement on Aug. 8,"' Voitenko said, speaking by phone from Istanbul, Turkey.
He refused to discuss the Arctic Sea mystery. "I know more than I can say, but you know what — I am afraid," Voitenko said.
In his article posted Aug. 11, Voitenko said the only explanation for the ship's disappearance was that it was carrying "very valuable or dangerous material." He also said it appeared that "some third party, having seized the ship, was determined at all costs not to allow the cargo to reach the intended receiver."
The Finnish company shipping the timber and Finnish port authorities have confirmed that the Arctic Sea was carrying timber worth euro1.3 million ($1.8 million) when it left.
Russian political and military commentators have speculated that the Arctic Sea was also carrying weapons and was intercepted by Israel to prevent their delivery to Iran or Syria.
The EU's rapporteur on piracy, Adm. Tarmo Kouts, said in an interview with Time magazine that this is the most likely explanation. "There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can't explain this situation in any other way," Kouts, a former commander of the Estonian armed forces, was quoted as saying in a Time article published this week.
Six of the eight suspected hijackers had been living in Estonia.
The Russian commentators point to the two weeks the freighter spent undergoing repairs in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. They also note that the day after Russia announced it had reached the ship, Israeli President Shimon Peres paid an unexpected visit to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Peres said Medvedev promised to reconsider Russia's planned delivery of powerful S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran. A Russian official confirmed only that Peres raised the issue.