China Ship is Focus of Pipeline Damage Probe, Finland Says

An investigation into the damage to the Balticonnector gas pipeline is currently focused on the role of the Chinese NewNew Polar Bear container vessel, Finland's National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) said on Friday.

Early on Oct. 8, a gas pipeline and a telecoms cable connecting Finland and Estonia were broken, in what Finnish investigators said may have been sabotage, though they have yet to conclude whether it was an accident or a deliberate act.

On Tuesday, Sweden said a third link, connecting Stockholm to Tallinn, had been damaged at roughly the same time as the other two.

"The police have established in the criminal investigation that the movements of the vessel NewNew Polar Bear flying the flag of Hong Kong coincide with the time and place of the gas pipeline damage," NBI said in a statement.

"For this reason, the investigation is now focused on the role of the said vessel," the Finnish investigators added.

Following Finland's NBI statement, Estonian investigators, who are also looking into the telecoms cable incidents, said they were still looking at two ships, the NewNew Polar Bear and Russia's Sevmorput.

"We have identified that during the incidents, the vessels NewNew Polar Bear and Sevmorput were in the area. We are still investigating whether or not these vessels had anything to do with the damage," they said in a statement to Reuters.

Only these two ships were present at all three incident sites around the approximate time when the damage occurred, according to vessel tracking data reviewed by Reuters.

'Heavy object'
Finland's NBI said "a heavy object" was found on the seabed near the pipeline damage and were investigating whether this was linked to the incident.

"The investigation has confirmed that the damage has been caused by an external mechanical force, and based on current knowledge there is no reason to believe the damage has been caused by an explosion," Detective Superintendent Risto Lohi said in the statement.

A recently formed "huge clump of soil" deep in the clay seabed was believed to contain an extremely heavy object, and was the subject of investigation, the NBI said.

"Attempts will be made to lift the object from the sea for technical examination," Lohi said.

NewNew Shipping, the owner and operator of the NewNew Polar Bear, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

Separately, Finland's foreign ministry said on Friday it had contacted China and Russia via diplomatic channels regarding the investigation of damage to a pipeline and a telecoms cable.

The Finnish foreign ministry, in a statement to Reuters said it had contacted China to seek help to get in touch with the NewNew Polar Bear.

Regarding Russia, Finland contacted the Russian foreign ministry "stating the seriousness of the matter" and that an investigation had been launched.

A second telecoms cable, linking Sweden and Estonia, suffered a partial outage at around the same time, which may also have been caused by outside influence, Swedish and Estonian authorities have said.

The incidents have stoked concerns about the security of energy supplies in the wider Nordic region and prompted the NATO military alliance to ramp up patrols in the Baltic Sea.

Russia's Rosatom said the Sevmorput had no link to any of the pipeline damage.

"We categorically reject as groundless any suggestions that a Rosatom-operated ship may have been in any way connected to the Balticconnector pipeline incident in the Gulf of Finland on October 8," Rosatom said in a statement to Reuters.

"It passed through the Gulf of Finland, an area of intense maritime traffic, without stopping or slowing down, maintaining an average speed of 14.5 knots. The crew did not observe or record anything unusual, suspicious, or otherwise reportable."

(Reuters - Reporting by Anne Kauranen, additional reporting by Beijing and Moscow newsrooms, writing by Terje Solsvik, editing by Gwladys Fouche, Alex Richardson, Jonathan Oatis and Jane Merriman)

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