NEWS

Captain of Baltic Sky took detour to Greece

MESSOLONGI – For weeks, the creaky Baltic Sky languished off the Turkish coast waiting for orders to set sail for Sudan with tons of explosives. Then came a telex from the ship’s Irish owner: Forget Africa and divert the cargo to a remote Greek port. But Captain Anatoliy Baltak of Ukraine, who gave the account on Wednesday, claimed he and his crew had no idea they were breaking the law when they sailed into Greek waters and straight into a team of waiting commandos – who had been tipped off about the ship’s movements by a NATO anti-terrorist task force. «I didn’t think I was doing something illegal,» Baltak said in his first public comments on the vessel’s nearly six-week odyssey. «It didn’t even cross my mind that terrorism was an issue.» Baltak’s chronology – given after a nearly 90-minute hearing before an investigating magistrate – could answer some lingering questions about the ship and its cargo. But new mysteries also emerged. Baltak said he had no explanation for the detour to Greece and believed the owners had notified Greek authorities of the new course. «The shipowner is responsible for everything,» Baltak told reporters. That explanation, however, was not enough for magistrate Olga Arslanoglou. After a closed-door hearing, Baltak and his crew of four Ukrainians and two Azeris were ordered jailed pending a full investigation. «Neither the ship managers nor the shipowners have appeared until this moment to tell us what they want or even tell us who they are,» Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Anomeritis said. The crew faces charges of entering Greek territorial waters without informing officials of the load of 680 tons (750 US tons) of ammonium nitrate-based explosives and detonators. The Baltic Sky, which loaded the cargo on May 12 in Tunisia, was seized on Sunday. «There will be a judicial investigation about the strange behavior of this ship,» Anomeritis said. «I believe at some point these questions will be answered.» Baltak identified the vessel’s «real owners» as Cristian McNulty of Ireland. Shipping documents say the vessel is controlled by a company in the tiny Pacific island nation of the Marshall Islands. Several maritime sources, including the authoritative Lloyd’s List, have linked McNulty with a Sligo, Ireland-based company, Unithorn Ltd., which is listed as the ship’s manager. McNulty is associated with a string of problem-plagued shipping firms over the years, reports said. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach McNulty or Unithorn have been unsuccessful. Money, or the lack of it, has emerged as a possible reason for the ship’s strange course – with the ship’s owner or manager perhaps holding out for more cash to deliver the cargo, some officials speculated. Tunisia said the ship was legally loaded and Sudan gave Greece paperwork showing the cargo was ordered by a legitimate firm, the Khartoum-based Mutakamila Company for Chemicals and Development Ltd. The company claims the explosives are for industrial use and wants them returned. Baltak told reporters he took command of the ship on June 3 in Istanbul, Turkey, and had documents for the explosives. He had papers showing the cargo was for a Sudanese company. He said he had anchored the ship in the Dardanelles strait near the Aegean Sea to await orders on when to sail for Sudan. On June 20, telex orders told him to head for the little-used Ionian Sea port of Astakos, about 235 kilometers (145 miles) northwest of Athens. When the ship was spotted entering the Aegean Sea, NATO warned the Greeks. It was boarded off Astakos two days later. The vessel is currently in the adjacent harbor of Platiyiali.