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September 5, 2009

A RUSSIAN journalist who alerted the world to the disappearance and likely hijacking of the Arctic Sea cargo ship said he had fled Russia in fear of his life.

Mikhail Voitenko has suggested that the ship might have been carrying a secret Kremlin arms shipment for the Middle East. He believes it was not hijacked as the Kremlin contends, but was intercepted by Israeli forces in an international incident neither country wants made public.

Voitenko, the editor of the online maritime bulletin Sovfracht, said he had left the country after receiving a menacing late-night phone call. Voitenko said an unidentified man called him on the night of September 1 and warned him he was ”stepping on the heels of some serious people”.

Speaking from Istanbul, where he is in hiding, Voitenko said he was bluntly informed that these ”guys are out for revenge. I was told: ‘They are very unhappy with you. But they don’t want unpleasantness.”’ Voitenko said the man urged him to leave Russia.

Speaking by phone, he said he was intending to stay out of the country until ”things calmed down”. Asked if he planned to return to Russia any time soon, Voitenko replied: ”Am I an idiot?”

Voitenko was the first person to report on the disappearance of the Arctic Sea, which mysteriously vanished after passing through the English Channel on July 28, carrying a $2 million cargo of Finnish timber.

Russia says hijackers seized the ship four days earlier in international waters near Sweden and that its navy recovered the boat on August 17 in the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa.

Russia has charged eight people, mostly Estonians, with kidnapping and piracy.

Voitenko, however, has repeatedly cast doubt on the official version of events.

Sounding distinctly frightened, he said he did not know the identity of his mystery caller. But he hinted that the man who spoke with a ”chilling voice” may have represented the FSB, Russia’s spy agency. Voitenko also said that Russia was ”deliberately covering up this mystery”.

Asked what was really hidden on board the Arctic Sea, he replied cryptically: ”Half of those involved in this were private individuals. But half were linked with the state.”

All 15 Russian sailors involved in the Arctic Sea drama were released unharmed. So far, however, they have failed to give a convincing account of what happened, with even Russia’s investigative committee head, Alexander Bastrykin, admitting last week that the ship ”might have been carrying not only timber”.

Adding further intrigue, the Russian chief of general staff, Nikolai Makarov, said the vessel would be searched for a secret cargo when it returns to Russia this month.

Source: Guardian

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