Armed Russian military have stormed a Greenpeace ship protesting against oil exploitation in remote Arctic waters. According to the last communications from the Arctic Sunrise before all contact was cut Wednesday at around 4.30pm BST, the Russians dropped guards on to the deck of the vessel by rope from a helicopter, rounded up the Greenpeace crew and broke into the wheel house and communications rooms.
Tweets from three people who locked themselves into a secure area on the ship said: "This is pretty terrifying. Loud banging. Screaming in Russian. They're still trying to kick in the door." Another said: "Crew are sitting on their knees on the helipad with guns pointed at them."
Frank Hewetson, British action coordinator on the vessel, later said that 29 of the crew were being held under armed guard in the canteen.
"About 10 commandoes boarded by a soviet era helicopter. They pushed us aside and ordered us to lie flat out on the deck. They then smashed their way onto the bridge.
"Our engines have been turned off and they have isolated the captain Pete Wilcox. We have no idea what is happening."
The crew includes six British people as well as 10 other nationalities. No-one has been reported injured.
The dramatic moves, 60km (40 miles) north of the Russian coast near the island of Nova Zemlya, was described by Greenpeace executives in London as "an illegal act in international waters". "We have a right to be there. This was an entirely peaceful protest", said Arctic campaigner Ben Ayliffe.
But Russian diplomats accused the environmental group of "aggressive and provocative" actions this week after shots were fired by Russian coastguard and two activists from the Arctic Sunrise were arrested on Wednesday after scaling the Gazprom-owned Prirazlomnaya platform which is drilling for oil in the area. The activists have been detained on the Russian coastguard ship Ladoga.
"The intruders' actions … had the outward signs of extremist activity that can lead to people's death and other grave consequences," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
According to Reuters, Russia summoned the Dutch ambassador asking him to ensure it was not repeated. The Arctic Sunrise is registered in Holland.
Gazprom plans to start production from the Prirazlomnaya platform next year 2014, according to Greenpeace, raising the risk of an oil spill in an area that contains three nature reserves protected by Russian law.
Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said: "This illegal boarding of a peaceful protest ship highlights the extreme lengths that the Russian government will go to keep Gazprom's dangerous Arctic drilling away from public scrutiny. We ask President Putin to restrain the Coast Guard and order them to holster their guns and withdraw. We are a peaceful organisation and our protest has done nothing to warrant this level of aggression."
Figures released this week suggest that the extent of Arctic sea ice has shrunk to its sixth lowest level on record, prompting scientists to warn that manmade climate change was bringing the days of an ice-free Arctic closer.
Additionally, Greenpeace reported, the Russian Coast Guard has boarded the Greenpeace International ship Arctic Sunrise and is arresting the 25 activists on board following a protest against Gazprom’s Arctic oil drilling operations.
At the time of boarding, the Arctic Sunrise was circling Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform at the three nautical mile limit. Coordinates confirm that the ship was inside of Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), making this an illegal boarding by the Russian Coast Guard. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea guarantees foreign vessels freedom to navigate in the EEZ of another state without interference of any kind. The coordinates at the time of the boarding were: 69-19-53N : 57-16-53E.
Using a helicopter and ropes, armed Coast Guard officials boarded the vessel and started rounding up the activists, assembling them on the helideck. Greenpeace International activists locked inside the radio room said they saw other activists detained on their knees with guns pointed at them.
U.S. Greenpeace Captain Peter Wilcox is one of those arrested. Captain Wilcox has skippered Greenpeace vessels for several decades, including the original Rainbow Warrior, which was bombed by French secret agents in New Zealand in 1985, killing one person.
The Coast Guard earlier arrested and held without charge two Greenpeace International activists who had scaled Gazprom’s drill platform on Wednesday in a peaceful protest.
“We are extremely concerned for the safety of all those on board the Arctic Sunrise, and the activists that were summarily detained yesterday,” said Greenpeace USA Executive Director Phil Radford.
“Extreme oil drilling is madness, that much is clear, and the risk of a devastating oil spill while worsening catastrophic climate change is plain,” Radford continued. “The scenes from the Russian Arctic over the past two days of heavily armed masked men protecting the equipment of massive oil companies and now, storming the ship of peaceful protestors, are highly disturbing.”
“We would urge the Russian Government to reassess who poses the real threat in the Arctic, as well as appeal to Shell—massive joint venture partners with Gazprom—to rethink their commitment to exploiting this fragile and unique part of the world, especially when done down the barrel of a gun,” said Radford.
The Russian Ministry of International Affairs earlier claimed the Coast Guard intervened during Wednesday’s protest because the Arctic Sunrise represented an environmental and security threat—a claim that Greenpeace International strongly disputes.
“The Coast Guard has boarded our vessels with guns, threatened our activists at gunpoint and fired 11 warning shots across our ship, so who is the real threat to safety here?” said Ben Ayliffe, head of Greenpeace International’s Arctic oil campaign.