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Norwegians hunt fugitive Russian trawler

Mosnews reports that an exciting low speed sea chase is underway in the Barents Sea, where the Norwegian Coast Guard is trying to reel in a fugitive Russian trawler. The trawler, accused of fishing illegally, also appears to have also kidnapped two Norwegian inspectors.

The trawler was stopped on Saturday in the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic, in waters over which Norway claims full sovereignty. “The ship was transporting various types of illegal equipment, including nets which pick up just about everything, including small fish and fry,” Norwegian navy spokesman John Espen Lien said.

Two inspectors boarded the Elektron, and the ship headed for the Tomsoe in northern Norway following orders from Norwegian authorities. But the trawler then changed its route on Sunday, “going back and forth” without a real course, Espen Lien said.

In Moscow an official at Russia’s navy headquarters, Igor Dygalo, said Russia’s navy would not interfere in the Elektron affair. “In accordance with international maritime law, the Russian navy won’t interfere in this situation. Everything will be solved on a diplomatic level and by the vessel’s owner,” Dygalo said.

An official with Russia’s Arctic regional border guard told Interfax news agency that Norwegian and Russian officials were coordinating their response and that the captured Norwegian inspectors’ lives were not at risk. “The Norwegian inspectors on board the trawler are alive and well. They are not threatened by anything,” Interfax quoted the unnamed official as saying.

I have to say, I’m not convinved that kidnapping two Norwegian officials was a particularly smart move, and I don’t really like these guys chances of escaping.

Sections of the Russian press are reporting that this chase has the potential to cause an international incident between the two countries, although the navy and Arctic border guard seem to be making all the right noises about assisting and not interfering with the Norwegian attempts to capture the trawler.

Having said that, though, this does remind me eerily of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union made great use of trawlers as spying stations, and I can’t help but wonder if they are running because they’ve been caught red handed doing something slightly more illegal than a spot of fishing. The two countries still dispute the maritime limits around Svalbard, and Russia especially seems to have a bad habit of trying to provoke its neghbours.

One to watch, and I’ll try to update you on who wins the race…

Update 23/10: Well, the trawler won the race, and escaped into Russian waters, and the tender care of the Russian authorities.

The “kidnapped” Norwegians were handed over, and the captain of the trawler ended up in hospital after suffering a heart attack:

“The man has not slept for six days,” Stepakhno said, adding that other Elektron crewmembers were in good health.

What else? Oh, the Russian’s called out their navy to patrol their maritime border in an attempt to ensure the Norwegian’s called off the chase, and Russian ministers had to reassure the world that war was not about to break out:

Five days in, a dispute that began with a query about the size of the holes in a fishing net had assumed such proportions that Russia’s minister of defense, Sergei B. Ivanov, felt it necessary to reassure the international community that there was “no danger of armed conflict” between Norway and Russia.

And all this over some fish? Well, probably not . Russia has never accepted Norway’s unilaterally declared protected fisheries zone in the area, and that initially seemed to be the spark for the incident. Fishery rights are no doubt important to the Russian government, and pride usually means that they are loathe to back down over anything. But, in this case, I think the Russian desire not to give an inch may also have had something to do with the huge amount of natural resources under the Barents Sea.

The rapidly retreating Arctic ice cap is believed to contain a quarter of the world’s petroleum resources.

So after the Cold War ended, great armies of engineers and scientists, ship crews and oil workers begun to arrive, kitted out with both heavy machinery and hardnosed government backing.

Concede any sovereignty to the Norwegians over fishing rights, Russians worry, and their negotiating position over rights to oil and gas reserves will be damaged.

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