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Ship's Crew Charged With Illegally Transporting Explosives - 2003-06-23

Prosecutors in Greece have charged the captain and six crew members of a mystery ship seized off the Greek coast Sunday with illegally transporting explosives and failing to notify authorities it was carrying dangerous cargo. Greek officials say 680 tons of explosives aboard the ship were listed on its manifest as being destined for a Sudanese chemical company that does not exist.

Judicial officials in the western Greek town of Mesolongi have ordered the arrest of two Azerbaijanis and five Ukrainians, one of whom is the vessel's captain, and have given them 48 hours to contest the charges against them.

Greek merchant marine minister Giorgos Anomeritis says the quantity of the explosives found aboard the Baltic Sky was the equivalent power of an atomic bomb.

Greek authorities are investigating possible terrorist links to the cargo. The ship's manifest indicates the explosives were bound for a company in Sudan, but Mr. Anomeritis said the only address on the manifest was a post office box and that neither the company nor the post office box exist. He said that, since no one knows the recipient, no one can be sure how the cargo was to be used.

So far, there are more questions than answers to this maritime mystery.

Sudan is on a U.S. list of countries that support terrorism, although the State Department said last month that it was making progress in fighting terrorists.

The probe into the saga of the Baltic Sky is complicated further by the murky world of shipping ownership and the strange path of the vessel itself. It took on its cargo in Tunisia, sailed into Turkish waters, and then began wandering around the Mediterranean until it was finally seized by the Greek coast guard off the country's western coast.

The ship flies the flag of the Comoros, an island republic in the Indian Ocean, but is owned by a company registered in the Marshall Islands, in the Pacific.

The Baltic Sky's shipping documents correspond exactly to the cargo, and an Athens-based shipping expert, who asked not to be identified, says it is not clear to him that the owners, or whoever may have chartered the ship, knew that the listed recipient was a phantom company. He said another possibility is that the ship was caught up in a business deal that fell apart and was left to fend for itself on the high seas until it received new instructions.

Greek officials said they were tipped off by international intelligence agencies that the Baltic Sky was carrying suspicious cargo and that they began tracking the vessel last week.

The Greek coast guard has been on a heightened state of alert for months. Last week, Greece hosted a European summit amid extraordinary security measures, and it is due to host the Olympic Games next year.