Estonia says Chinese ship is main focus of probe into cables damage

By Andrius Sytas and Essi Lehto

VILNIUS/HELSINKI (Reuters) – Estonian prosecutors said on Friday the Hong Kong-registered NewNew Polar Bear container ship was the main focus of their investigations into the damage of two subsea telecoms cables last month.

Soon after, police from Estonia’s near neighbour Finland said an anchor found on the sea bed next to a gas pipeline damaged on the same night probably belonged to the same ship, building on earlier inquiries.

Officials from both countries have said they are looking into the ship’s role, as its movements on Oct. 7-8 matched the time and place of the damage. It is the first time Estonia has said it was the primary scenario it was investigating.

China has previously said it is willing to provide necessary information on the incident in accordance with international law. NewNew Shipping, the owner and operator of the NewNew Polar Bear, has previously declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

NATO stepped up its patrols in the Baltic Sea after the damage was reported.

Estonia’s prosecutor general said on Friday the main lead they were following was that “damage to the telecom cables between Estonia and Finland and Estonia and Sweden is connected to the vessel Newnew Polar Bear flying the flag of Hong Kong”.

“We prepared a legal assistance request to China so that the local law enforcement authorities would perform the procedural operations, primarily those connected to the vessel and its crew,” State Prosecutor Triinu Olev said in a statement.

A criminal investigation into the Estonia-Finland cable had now been formally extended to cover the other cable to Sweden after investigators concluded that had also been damaged by human activity, the prosecutor added.

Finland’s police force said on Friday evidence suggested the anchor likely belonged to the NewNew Polar Bear, and that paint from that anchor had been found on the damaged Balticconnector gas pipeline between Finland and Estonia.

“At this stage we can state that the anchor lifted from the sea … may for some technical details be considered to belong to Newnew Polar Bear,” detective superintendent Risto Lohi said, without spelling out the technical details.

Finland’s Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen on Wednesday said China had promised full cooperation with their investigation.

Reuters has reported that two vessels, the NewNew Polar Bear and the Russia-flagged Sevmorput, were present near the cables and pipeline around the time of the damage, according to data from MarineTraffic, a ship-tracking and maritime analytics provider.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Essi Lehto in Helsinki, editing by Terje Solsvik, Christina Fincher and Andrew Heavens)