The Chinese vessel suspected of damaging a gas pipeline between Estonia and Finland as well as comms cables linking Estonia to Finland and Sweden could have dragged its anchor along the seabed for a few hundred kilometers, the investigation has found.
"The drag marks cross the [damaged] Estonia-Sweden and Estonia-Finland communications cables, which is why we have reason to believe the damage the cables have sustained is a result of this," public prosecutor Triinu Olev told ERR Monday.
She said that the investigators' main theory is that the damage done to the communications cables has to do with Newnew Polar Bear, a cargo vessel owned by a Chinese company.
Finnish paper Helsingin Sanomat (HS) on Sunday carried a quote by Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur to Swedish SVT, according to which the Newnew Polar Bear may have been dragging its anchor for a few hundred kilometers. Experts who spoke to HS considered it a distinct possibility.
Magnus Winberg, lecturer at the Aboa Mare Maritime Academy in Turku, told HS that it is possible to drag a ship's anchor without others even noticing it. "If a ship is moving at 10-12 knots, the crews of passing ships have no reason to take out their binoculars and see whether it's dragging its anchor chain," Winberg said. The border guard can also pay no mind to a ship moving at its regular speed.
Dragging its anchor affects a ship's maneuverability and speed, and Winberg believes that both ill intent and the crew's incompetence could be to blame.
What he described as peculiar is that the anchor finally caught on the Balticconnector pipeline in a situation where it could easily have snagged on a boulder or other obstacle on the seabed before. "As a sailor, that is the part I find hard to comprehend," he added.
According to the suspicions, the anchor of the Hong Kong-registered Newnew Polar Bear damaged the Balticconnector pipeline on October 8. The incident took place in Finland's exclusive economic zone. The Finnish authorities lifted the broken-off anchor from the seabed on October 24. The Finnish Central Criminal Police said November 10 that traces of the pipeline's paint were found on the anchor and that it very likely belonged to Newnew Polar Bear.
A communications cable between Estonia and Finland was damaged at around the same time, while a cable linking Estonia and Sweden, located some 50 kilometers off the coast of Hiiumaa, was damaged the next day. The same vessel is believed to be the cause of the damage.
ERR reported mid-November that the Balticconnector was damaged between two pipes of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline between Russia and Germany.
The Balticconnector crosses the Nord Stream gas pipelines 1 A and 1 B which are placed 900 meters apart and the damage is closer to 1 A.
Estonian transmission system operator Elering said that the pipeline was dragged 100 meters from where it was originally laid, and four kilometers of the pipeline is now dislocated.
Prosecution establishes contact with China
Public prosecutor Triinu Olev said that Estonia has sent China a letter requesting legal assistance, which asks the Chinese authorities to carry out procedural acts involving Newnew Polar Bear and its crew.
"We have established contact with the Chinese side, while they have not gotten around to procedures yet," she said.
"While we pursue international cooperation to aid the investigation, the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) is continuing its inquiries in Estonia. Considering the specific nature of the investigation and the need to pursue international cooperation, we cannot say how long the process might take. Just as the Finnish authorities have said regarding the pipeline investigation, criminal proceedings in Estonia could also take more time than usually."
Editor: Mait Ots, Marcus Turovski