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Greeks probe for terror links to ship loaded with explosives

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

PLATIYALI, Greece -- A rusting cargo ship was placed under heavy guard Monday as officials struggled to unravel its last voyage: Were hundreds of tons of explosives below decks linked to terrorism or simply a business deal gone bad?

The Greek coast guard impounded the Baltic Sky, and army demolition experts secured its cargo of 750 tons of industrial-grade explosives and 8,000 detonators that documents say were bound for Sudan. The vessel was forced to anchor at an obscure Greek port Sunday after wandering the Mediterranean Sea for nearly six weeks -- much of it under international surveillance.

Its crew -- five Ukrainians and two Azerbaijanis -- face charges that include entering Greek waters without announcing their hazardous cargo.

"It should have declared that it was sailing with a cargo that was like an atomic bomb," Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Anomeritis said.

Making sense of the ship's meandering journey may take some time.

The inquiry is complicated by the murky world of shipping, where the true owners of a ship often hide behind offshore management companies and vessels fly so-called "flags of convenience." The layers of protection -- mostly for tax avoidance -- are well-known to Greece's huge maritime fleet. Now, it's the Greeks who must try to penetrate the industry fog.

The ship's manifest said the cargo of ammonium nitrate-based explosives was loaded in Gabes, Tunisia, on May 12 and bound for a company in Sudan. But Greek officials say the destination is only a post office box. No other details were disclosed about the firm, identified as Integrated Chemicals and Development.

According to shipping documents supplied by Anomeritis' office, the ship was carrying ANFO, an explosive often used in mining and construction. The vessel also carried 8,000 detonators.

In Sudan, Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said the shipment was approved by the government and was destined for "a number of Sudanese institutions" through a company owned by a Sudanese man named Essam Bakry al-Khalifa.

"I am going to hand those documents to the Greek ambassador in Sudan," the official news agency SUNA quoted him as saying.

The statement denied the ship was owned by a Sudanese company but provided no details on al-Khalifa's company, the possible uses for the ship's cargo or why the ship did not travel directly to Sudan.

The story took another twist last Monday when the Tunisian Explosives and Munitions Company filed a complaint with authorities in Tunis, Tunisia, against the Baltic Sky, alleging that the company had a contract to deliver the explosives, intended for civilian use, to a Sudanese company.

In a statement, the Tunisian company accused the Baltic Sky of diverting the cargo from its original route and threatening not to deliver the cargo to its rightful destination.

The Baltic Sky apparently never headed toward the Suez Canal that would bring it to Sudan.

According to Turkey's Anatolia new agency, the ship passed through that country's Dardanelles strait on May 21 after declaring it was carrying explosives.

Anomeritis said it docked in Istanbul on June 2 and picked up its current captain, 64-year-old Anatoliy Baltak of Ukraine. Anatolia said it left June 5, saying it was headed for the Suez.

But the ship zigzagged across the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean for two weeks before it was boarded by Greek special forces on Sunday in the southern Ionian Sea.

It was taken to Platiyali, a harbor surrounded by hills of olive groves 150 miles northwest of Athens. Security forces guarded the harbor's sole land entrance at a gate more than a mile from the ship.

The ship's history is a study in the workings of the maritime maze.

Greek officials say the 1,717-ton ship is registered to Alpha Shipping Inc. based in the Pacific Ocean nation of the Marshall Islands. Its flag, however, comes from the Comoros Islands, a nation off the southeast coast of Africa that is used by shipping companies as a flag of convenience to avoid taxes and regulations.

The 37-year-old ship -- built in a Hungarian shipyard -- was previously known as the Sea Runner and flew a Cambodian flag. It reportedly was detained in Britain last year after failing safety inspections but allowed to sail again after passing them with a new name in March.

According to Anomeritis, the ship was boarded as part of the international war on terror. Greece and other nations had tracked the ship for weeks, he said.

Anomeritis speculated that there might be several reasons behind the ship and its cargo: possibly, it was a terrorist shipment; perhaps a legitimate business deal fell apart; or its crew simply got cold feet delivering dangerous cargo with U.S.-led anti-terrorist efforts in full gear in Sudan and the Horn of Africa region.

"Someone could think that it would have some connection with terrorist groups," he told reporters in the port of Piraeus near Athens.

But Anomeritis tersely summed up the state of the investigation so far: "Who knows?"

He added that the seizure was carried out after Greece communicated "with all the international agencies and law enforcement organizations." He did not elaborate.

Although the ANFO explosives were commercially made and packed in pallets, homemade versions of ammonium nitrate bombs have been the explosive of choice in many terrorist attacks -- from Oklahoma City in 1995 to last year's Bali bombings.

Used as a fertilizer, ammonium nitrate is harmless. But when mixed with fuel oil, it becomes an explosive more powerful than dynamite.


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