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m/v Alaed incident, full report

It’s high time to compile full report listing all known facts of m/v Alaed incident, because many people, including journalists, are lost in a mass data of related information.
It all started on June 11, when m/v Alaed left a well-known military base Baltiysk port in Kaliningrad region, Baltic sea. Automatic Identification System data showed Vladivostok (Russian Far East, Japan sea) as port of destination, vessel was to proceed by usual route via English Canal, Gibraltar, Med, Suez Canal and so on. By the time of departure, political scandal was already brewing after Mrs. Clinton accused Russia of shipping attack helicopters to Bassar al Assad regime in Syria, the accusation being rejected by Russia in rather strong terms. British media was already in a hunt for the vessels which may transport helicopters, on any other arms, to a ruling regime in Syria, their hunt fuelled by a recent incident involving Russian freighter Professor Katsman.

Russian freighter Professor Katsman
In the last decade of May vessel called Tartous, presumably with arms on board. There were no proofs pro or contra, except one thing – vessel switched off AIS transmitter being some 20 miles off Tartous, and switched AIS on some time after departure. Maritime Bulletin was the first Russian edition to come up with AIS information, later the owner of the vessel, one of the biggest Russian shipowners North-West Shipping Co., based in S-Petersburg, accused media (meaning first of all, Maritime Bulletin) of ignorance, and claimed the AIS was never switched off, which is rather funny, because I was monitoring vessel’s position during two days with 1-2 hours intervals, through two AIS websites (one of them displays AIS info using Google Earth platform) – there was no signal for at least 36 hours. Company also said, that vessel delivered to Syria some civil cargo, there were no arms. Why did they try to hide, then?

Anyway, British media was all eager not to miss another freighter heading for Syria, and somehow they managed to get info on m/v Alaed and its cargo, which presumably was attack helicopters and air-defence system missiles and spare parts. The publications are a mystery in itself – just how were British journalists able to get such an information? I don’t believe it was just luck, I’d sooner assume there was a whistle-blower, the sure tone of the allegations and naming exact items vessel was transporting – not just arms, but helicopters, let us to believe, that it was a leak from rather reliable source.

Between June 15 and 17, it was already a scandal, but with no reaction from Russian. It was known by that time, that m/v Alaed belongs to a company, registered in Curacao, that vessel is Curacao-flagged, that technical manager is Russian company FEMCO, while commercial manager is Danish United Nordic Shipping. Before June 18 United Nordic Shipping was rejecting any such accusations stating that the company presented to Danish authorities all the papers along with explanation, and they were found satisfactory. The bomb exploded on June 18, when United Nordic Shipping said it has nothing to do whatsoever with either vessel or its manager FEMCO company, based in Sakhalin, Russia, and added for good measure, that there was “an unfortunate link to FEMCO”.

Meanwhile, British Standartd Club called off vessel’s insurance for obvious reason to avoid any negative consequences which may arise under the EU sanctions against arms deliveries to Syria. Vessel suddenly changed course and instead of sailing south through English Canal, rounded Scotland and switched off its AIS around midnight June 17, presumably drifting for some time to wait for owner’s directives what to do and where to steer. 
Russian media exploded with the news and wild guesses, but not with proved and reliable information. Russian officials kept on ignoring the news, they didn’t show any sign they knew anything, or paid any attention to the evolving scandal, there was just no reaction at all. FEMCO company published press-releases announcing cancellation of business relations with Danish company, and rejecting the military character of the cargo on board of the vessel, but again, without any proof. There was one point though, which was correct in their statement – vessel didn’t (and doesn’t) have on board anything illegal.

Some of Western media was overwhelmed with joy at the “elegance” of the way vessel was turned, because Alaed, they presume, can’t sail to Syria without insurance. Dead wrong. Alaed could go on with her voyage without insurance, because the route goes through international waters, there is no need to enter EU waters, where Alaed could be detained on insurance problem grounds. Still, on June 19 it was confirmed, that vessel turned back, though back then it wasn’t clear where exactly Alaed would sail to – S-Petersburg or as claimed in the beginning of the story, to Vladivostok. Why did vessel turn back?
Answer is obvious – British media hinted at a possibility of vessel’s forced detention by British special forces, as it was already proposed to British Premier by respective agencies. That was something Russia couldn’t do much about, as long as vessel is registered under Curacao flag. That’s why on June 20 Russia ordered the shipowner to re-direct vessel to Murmansk, still staying behind and keeping silence as to the character of cargo and Russia’s involvement. Murmansk seemed to be the best and just logical choice – no need to sail through Danish Straits or Baltic sea with the risk of intercepting, or to Vladivostok with helicopters destined for Syria.

It was expected then, that it was the end of the story, at least as far as Alaed was concerned – cargo was expected to be offloaded in Murmansk and either transported to Syria by other means (many suspected that the plan was to carry helicopters by big military landing ships of Russian Navy which were presumably, readied for the sailing to Tartous from Black sea), or simply kept away till better times, depending on situation in Syria.
Second bomb, and biggest, went off on June 21, during the briefing in Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when officials said that Russian freighter Alaed is sailing to Murmansk port, Barents sea, to change the flag from Curacao to Russian, having on board helicopters and spare parts for air-defence system, all of them destined for Syria. It was understood, that after changing flag vessel will resume its voyage – i.e. Russia will bluntly go on with delivering arms to Syria. Russia officially recognized the military cargo on board and Syria’s regime as a receiver, and Russia openly challenged the West in its intention to ban the arms supplies to Syria. Vessel uneventfully arrived to Murmansk on June 23, and on that day Russian media published news which leave no doubt as to Russia’s intention with regards to the arms on board of Alaed – they are to be delivered to Syria, and by no other means but by m/v Alaed, quoted Russian media unnamed military and diplomatic sources. The time will show, and rather soon, whether the challenge is real or fake, hoping Russia will sensibly change her mind and act respectfully to the international community’s near unanimous will.

Russia’s latest acts and demonstration of the strong character seem to be rather irrational. Legally Russia is in full right to ship anything to Syrian government, as long as there is no UN ban, recognized as compulsory by all the international community. Russian politicians (and pro-government media) accuse West of deviously planning the plot to overthrow Assad regime by helping rebels with arms and finally, with direct intervention. Russia accuses West in something West is allegedly, planning to do, while Russia, not allegedly, is helping one of the fighting in Syria parties by supplying arms, and whether the supply is carried out under old contracts or new ones, is irrelevant. Russia is interested in Assad regime conservation, because it suits Russia’s best interests (or Russian rulers), by keeping Russian Navy Base and buying more arms. Fine, but those attack helicopters on board of Alaed, be there 3 or 10 of them, from military point of vies just can’t be the key factor in the Assad survival, can’t guarantee the victory in looming Civil war. There is one thing the Alaed incident is slated to unleash – the general indignation over Russia’s open support of the regime, while Russian diplomats hypocritically appeal to international community to step back and not to interfere in a struggle between the regime and the rebels. All those who for quite a time were demanding from the West powers to do something about Syria, to help rebels with arms or even intervene with military force, got a very strong argument in their favour, thanks to Alaed voyage. Alaed scandal may and will help rebels cause, and if they win, one of the first things they’ll do will be closing down Russian Navy Base and cancellation of all the military contracts and connections.

Official recognition of Alaed cargo and destination, followed by rather belligerent decision to deliver helicopters by all costs, in a defiant and open way, seems to be, for Russian rulers, more a matter of principle and emotions, than rational thinking.

Owner of the Alaed made an interesting statement in latest press-release published on June 24. FEMCO said that due to the consignment instructions goods on board of Alaed (FEMCO still don’t clarify the character of the goods) are to be delivered to … Vladivostok, and the company didn’t receive from a charterer, which is a State-owned company (FEMCO doesn’t reveal the name of the charterer, of course), any instructions which command them otherwise – i.e. port of destination was and still is Vladivostok. FEMCO also said, that vessel safely arrived on Murmansk road and is waiting for further instructions from the charterer, and maybe, some extra cargo, from the same charterer. Vessel meanwhile, will be registered under Russian flag in order to avoid any problems which may arise because of latest events, all the notoriety and scandal around the vessel and voyage FEMCO explains by the activities of irresponsible media and some unnamed secret services of unnamed countries.
FEMCO possibly, is telling the truth – part truth, as usual. I suppose the vessel loaded in S-Petersburg some cargo which is destined for Vladivostok without a strict timeline of the delivery, it’s part of all the loaded cargo, including arms for Syria, and is to be delivered to Vladivostok after Syria trip. The existence of such a cargo is considered by FEMCO as enough of excuse to say, that the vessel was and is bound for Vladivostok. 
FEMCO still didn’t remove an announcement on its’ Russian website, saying that vessel will be open in S-Petersburg between July 5 -10, and is looking for any cargo destined for Vladivostok. It means vessel was scheduled to return to S-Petersburg after Syria voyage. Announcement was published before the scandal erupted, and as such, outlines the initial schedule of the vessel. Most probably, FEMCO simply forgot about the announcement.

Some clarifications and details concerning m/v Alaed and her voyage from Nakhodka port to S-Petrsburg, and her owners.
In its latest press-release FEMCO disoriented media and public with an intentional spinning of the facts and dates of Alaed voyages. I have to admit I was the original source of the misunderstanding. On June 18 Maritime Bulletin presumed vessel may call Syria before, judging from AIS data. Here’s initial news:
The vessel arrived to S-Petersburg on June 4, calling Gibraltar on May 2, with no reported port calls between those two dates, which seems to be rather strange. The voyage began on February 8. From Nakhodka, Russian Far East port, vessel transited Suez and naturally, called Gibraltar for refueling. But where was the vessel between May 2 and June 4? With cruise speed 12.5 knots vessel had to reach S-Petersburg from Gibraltar in 8-10 days, not in more than 30 days time. There was enough time for the vessel actually, to call Syria after Gibraltar and then head for S-Petersburg – in fact, if there was such a trip, it was finely tuned into the dates of Gibraltar and S-Petersburg arrivals.
I’m restricted in sources of information and don’t have access to the most comprehensible information on merchant vessels movements throughout the world, which is Lloyd’s database. The information I manage to collect usually is correct, but sometimes it’s just not full. Well, as it came out, Alaed visited Capo Verde during the time period in question, to offload the cargo of food in bags, rice or something. Whether Alaed visited Syria sometime in May or not, is irrelevant to Alaed’s scandalous voyage with helicopters, loaded in Baltiysk, but seeing obviously wrong assumption, owners couldn’t miss a chance to defend themselves by some small cheat. What did owners do? They mixed the voyage with helicopters with previous voyage, trying to make it look like they’ve been wrongly accused of carrying helicopters, while in fact, they’ve been delivering humanitarian food to Africa. So what? FEMCO is absolved from the allegation of visiting Syria in May, congratulations, but the present voyage and cargo stand as they are, confirmed by all Russia’s official might.

m/v Alaed and her present owners:
General cargo and heavy lift vessel Alaed IMO 9574999, dwt 9000, built 2010, as of present registered under Curacao flag. Ex-name Ao Li 8, name changed in November 2011 with the change of the owner. FEMCO company was established in 2004 in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin island, as a maritime company specialized in offshore activities, managing the fleet of oil rigs anchor-handling and supply vessels. In year 2011 company announced its plan to enter dry freight market with the fleet of owned general cargo vessel, up to 5 units. The first vessel company bought was Alaed, not just usual type of general cargo vessel, but a multipurpose heavylift and project cargo vessel, with powerful cranes and capability to handle non-standard cargoes. S-Petersburg branch is to manage the dry cargo vessels. Together with Alaed, company bought 50% stock of Danish United Nordic Shipping Co., which was nominated as a commercial manager of Alaed. 

Voytenko Mikhail
June 25 2012

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