Greek special forces seize ship with 'cargo like an atomic bomb'

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The Independent Online

Greek officials claimed to have foiled a terrorist plot yesterday after the coastguard intercepted a ship found to be transporting high explosives equivalent to an "atomic bomb".

Acting on a tip-off from international intelligence agencies, Greek special forces stormed the Irish-owned Baltic Sky on Sunday night and made what is believed to be the world's largest seizure of illegal explosives.

The crew of five Ukrainians and two Azerbaijanis were arrested and charged yesterday with illegally transporting explosives, after the ship's hold was found to contain 680 tons of TNT and 8,000 detonators.

"It was sailing with a cargo that was like an atomic bomb," said George Anomeritis, Greece's Merchant Marine Minister. Explosives experts said a ton of the explosive would be enough to destroy an eight-storey building.

Mr Anomeritis cast doubt on the ship's stated destination of Sudan after tracking a six-week voyage during which the vessel roamed Greek and Turkish waters and headed generally in the opposite direction.

Documents indicated that the cargo was bound for a non-existent company with a post office box address in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

"It should have left from Tunisia to go to Sudan, yet it has been seen in the Dardenelles, the Bosphorus, Istanbul, the Ionian and the Aegean seas," Mr Anomeritis told reporters. "One could conclude there was a probable connection to terrorist or other illegal activities, so when it entered Greek waters we intervened."

According to Lloyd's List, the Baltic Sky is controlled by two Irish nationals with a long record of cargo scams and failure to pay suppliers. Irish police denied that there was any suspicion of an IRA connection.

After a combined operation on Sunday involving the Greek national intelligence service and coastguard, special forces divers boarded the ship when the crew refused to answer questions about the cargo or their destination.

The Baltic Sky was ordered to dock at the small commercial port of Platiyali on the mainland opposite the holiday island of Cephalonia. An army munitions team was called in after an initial inspection revealed that the detonators had been stored dangerously close to the dynamite.

The vesselbegan its voyage in Albania on 27 April and headed to Tunisia, docking at the port of Gabes two weeks later. The ship's manifest states that a cargo of mining industry explosives known as ANFO was picked up there. In reality, a massive payload of TNT was placed in the hold.

According to documents seized by Greek authorities, the ship was then bound for Sudan but was instead sighted in the Dardenelles Strait on 21 May, before docking in Istanbul to change crew a day later. It sailed back through the Dardenelles and headed into Greek waters last week.

"If this ship was really on its way to Khartoum then it had no business roaming around in Greek waters," a merchant marine spokesperson said.

Greek investigators were questioning the captain last night over the real destination of the Baltic Sky.

Because of the quantity of explosives on board, analysts were saying that the intended recipient might be a rogue state rather than a terrorist group. But the Russian embassy in Athens reportedly asked to be kept abreast of the investigation, fearing there may be a connection to Chechen separatists.

The 37-year-old cargo ship was built in Hungary and was registered to Alpha Shipping Inc, based in the Pacific Ocean nation of the Marshall Islands. The vessel was flying the flag of Comoros, a state off the south-east coast of Africa, commonly used by shipping companies as a so-called flag of convenience to avoid taxes and other regulations.

According to Lloyd's List, under its former name Sea Runner, Baltic Sky is known to have called in at several British and European ports.

The arrival of the floating store of explosives caused alarm in Astakos, the nearest town to the port of Platiyali. "For all we know that stuff could have been destined for the Olympic Games," said the Mayor, Pythagoras Samaras.

The Greek coastguard has been on a state of high alert since April when US intelligence reported a number of suspect ships thought to be transporting either weapons or senior officials from the Iraqi Baath party.