Cohen confirms that seized Russian ship carried Iraqi oilBy ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON (February 6, 2000) - Tests confirm that a Russian tanker seized by the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf was carrying Iraqi oil in violation of the U.N. economic embargo, Defense Secretary William Cohen said Sunday. Cohen also disclosed that an Iraqi naval officer was on board the ship when it was seized by U.S. Navy SEAL commandos.
The Volga-Neft-147 was being taken to Muscat, the capital of Oman, and the Omani government will determine the fate of the merchant vessel and its crew, Cohen told reporters while flying back from Germany, where he attended a conference on European security.
Tests were completed Sunday on samples of oil from the tanker after was seized Wednesday on suspicions it was carrying Iraqi oil. "They do reveal that the oil was from Iraq," Cohen said. "But the government of Oman will make a determination as to what they will do with the ship itself. That's up to the Omanis at this point."
He said the Russians were informed of results of the tests but was unaware of any immediate response from Moscow.
Under normal procedure, the contraband would be sold and the profits used partly to offset the costs of the nation that agrees to take the vessel and partly to pay for the maritime force operation, U.S. officials have said.
Asked what effect the development might have on U.S.-Russian ties, Cohen said: "I don't think it will have any impact on relations."
Cohen pointed out that the ship was privately owned, and not the property of the government. Moscow had protested the seizure and demanded the vessel's release.
The State Department referred all questions to the Pentagon. Calls to the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow went unanswered.
When it was ordered to stop on Wednesday, the tanker ignored U.S. Navy demands, so armed Navy SEALs were dispatched by helicopter to board and seize the vessel, the Pentagon said Saturday. U.S. officials had said earlier that the Russian crew offered no resistance to being boarded Wednesday and cooperated with U.S. Navy personnel involved.
Once the SEALs got on board, the Russian crew cooperated, and no shots were fired, a Pentagon official said Saturday. The U.S. team was part of a multinational maritime interception force that enforces the 9-year-old U.N. embargo against Iraq.
Russia, which maintained that the oil was from Iran, has long supported the eventual lifting of the U.N. economic embargo against Iraq. The Clinton administration has insisted on full Iraqi compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions, including a requirement Iraq not possess weapons of mass destruction, before the embargo is lifted.
Washington said it merely was merely enforcing the embargo against Iraq in ordering the seizure.
Iraq is banned from most international commerce but is allowed to export up to $5.2 billion in oil every six months in order to buy food, medicine and other essentials for its people, and spare parts for its oil industry.
Despite the effort to enforce the U.N. sanctions, the State Department said last week that illicit oil exports from Iraq average 100,000 barrels a day, compared with 50,000 barrels in 1998, when oil prices were much lower.