Estonian-owned cargo ship sinks off Odesa after Russian action

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The HELT. Source: Vista Shipping Agency AS

An Estonian-owned cargo ship reportedly sank in the Black Sea on Thursday, off the coast of the port city Odesa. The vessel, the Helt, is thought to have struck a sea mine, and was one of many reported to have been hijacked by Russian naval forces as a type of human shield, ahead of an amphibious landing planned for Odesa.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Helt, owned by Estonian company VISTA Shipping Agency AS and sailing under the flag of Panama, was already sinking and with a heavy list, maritime news site Maritime Bulletin reported, citing Ukrainian sources.

While U.K. paper the Daily Mail reported on its website that four crew members were still missing and two had abandoned ship by using a lifeboat, all six crew members were subsequently safely accounted for, the Estonian foreign ministry said Thursday. None of the six were Estonian citizens, the ministry added.

Reutered also reports mine-strike as the likely cause of the initial explosion.

The Helt had reportedly been captured by the Russian Navy and used by them as a shield from direct fire, according to the Daily Mail, at a time when Russian naval landing craft are reportedly approaching Odesa ahead of a planned amphibious landing.

Maritime Bulletin reported that the tactic might also have been used as a way of evading radar detection.

 Maritime Bulletin placed the Helt 16 nautical miles southeast Odesa as if 12.00 UTC (2 p.m. Estonian time) on Thursday, at a time when the vessel's Automatic identification system (AIS) was still functioning. The Helt is thought to have sunk some time after that.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Russia's navy forced the Helt into entering a dangerous zone of the Black Sea, in order to use it as a "maskirovka" means of concealing Russian naval maneuvers in the area.

The New York Times reported the same, adding that Ukraine's navy had said that the Helt's crew had come under threat of fire had they refused to cooperate.

"This is nothing but 21st-century piracy," the Ukrainians said, according to the New York Times.

The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told ERR Thursday that: "There was an incident involving a cargo vessel owned by an Estonian firm, flying the Panamanian flag. The circumstances of the case are still not clear, and it is not known exactly what caused the sinking."

The ministry subsequently announced, at around 4.30 p.m. Thursday, that all six crew members had been safely rescued.

Estonian MEP Riho Terras (Isamaa) said that the choice of an Estonian vessel as a target for hijacking had not been accidental, tweeting about the incident that: "This is a very clear provocation and message from Putin. He is deliberately taunting us, trying to humiliate us, trying to challenge NATO. An Estonian cargo ship was not a random choice."

Reform MP and Riigikogu foreign affairs committee chair Marko Mihkelson tweeted that the Helt had already come under the control of the Russian Navy on Wednesday, ahead of the planned amphibious landing targeting Odessa.

The incident happened just one day after Bangladeshi-owned civilian cargo ship was struck either by a missile or bomb at Olvia, also a Black Sea port, the Daily Mail says. One of that vessel's crew members was reportedly killed in the blast.

The Helt was laid down in 1985 and sailed under the flag of Panama; the vessel's manager is reportedly the VISTA Shipping Agency AS, an Estonian company.

VISTA's website lists the Helt and two other vessels as being under its charge.

She is a little under 80 meters in length, with a gross tonnage of 1,473 GT, according to the website.

This story has been updated to include more details on reports the Helt had struck a mine and her eventual reported sinking, as well as of the use of civilian vessels as human shields by the Russian navy. Tweets from Riho Terras and Marko Mihkelson and a statement by the Estonian foreign ministry were also added to the original.

Please also note that ERR News uses the Ukrainian rendering of place names into English.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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