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Russia denies rumors of S-300 shipment on board Arctic Sea ship

RIA Novosti


MOSCOW, September 8 (RIA Novosti) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed on Tuesday media speculation that the Arctic Sea cargo ship, recently hijacked in the Atlantic, was carrying missiles for S-300 air defense systems.

Global media has been rife with rumors that the Russian-operated ship could have been involved in an arms-smuggling or trafficking operation on a state level.

"The presence of S-300 on board the Arctic Sea cargo ship is a complete lie," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow.

He added that Russia would conduct a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the ship's disappearance as the vessel was sailing under a Maltese flag.

"It [the investigation] will be completely transparent, and I hope everyone will be convinced that these rumors are absolutely ungrounded," Lavrov said.

The Maltese-flagged vessel, officially carrying lumber from Russia to Algeria, was reportedly boarded by a group of eight men on July 24 and mysteriously disappeared in the Atlantic.

It was discovered off Cape Verde on August 16 by Russia's Ladny warship and is currently being towed to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. The ship is due to arrive at the port in late September.

Four crew members remain on board, while the other 11 were flown to Moscow last month to be questioned by the Russian authorities amid speculation that they may have been in cahoots with the alleged hijackers. They have reportedly now returned home to the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk.

Eight men, including citizens of Russia, Latvia and Estonia, have been arrested and charged with piracy and kidnapping.

Malta, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Latvia have set up an investigation team to look into the incident. They have agreed that any other suspects in the case will be tried in their home countries.

Representatives of Russian, Finnish, Swedish and Estonian investigation authorities, each carrying out their own investigation into the incident, met last Thursday in Moscow.

S-300s are considered one of the world's most effective all-altitude regional air defense systems, comparable in performance to the U.S. MIM-104 Patriot system.

Russia has until recently delayed the implementation of a 2007 deal with Iran on the supply of S-300s. The contract is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Israel and the United States have been making proactive diplomatic efforts to influence Russia to drop the plans. They suspect the Islamic Republic of secretly seeking to build nuclear weapons, and have refused to rule out a military strike on its nuclear facilities.

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