Finnish police say they have data pointing to the Hong Kong-flagged cargo vessel NewNew Polar Bear as the culprit in damaging the pipeline running under the Baltic Sea.
Finnish investigators say they believed an anchor of a Chinese container ship was dislodged and caused the damage to the undersea BalticConnector gas pipeline between Finland and Estonia on the Baltic Sea earlier this month.
The National Bureau of Investigation, a branch of the Finnish police, said that it has evidence and data pointing to the Hong Kong-flagged cargo vessel NewNew Polar Bear as the culprit in damaging the pipeline running across the Gulf of Finland.
Detective Superintendent Risto Lohi, NBI’s head of the investigation, said in a news conference Tuesday that a 1.5 to 4-meter-wide dragging trail on the seabed is seen to lead to the point of damage in the gas pipeline.
That trail is believed to have been caused by a heavy 6-ton anchor which the Finnish Navy retrieved late on Monday.
“There are traces in the (anchor) which indicate that it has been in contact with the gas pipeline,” Lohi said, citing data from expert analysis.
Whether the pipeline damage was intentional, unintentional or caused by “bad seafaring” is subject of the next phase in the probe, officials said.
What happened to the pipeline?
On 8 October, Finnish and Estonian gas system operators said they noted an unusual drop in pressure in the pipeline after which they shut down the gas flow.
It turned out that the 77-kilometre-long pipeline that runs between the Finnish coastal town of Inkoo and the Estonian port of Paldiski was mechanically damaged in the Finnish economic zone and had shifted from its original position where it is buried in the seabed.
There was widespread initial speculation in Finland that the pipeline damage was intentionally carried out by Russia, in an apparent reaction to Finland's recent NATO membership, although senior leaders did not specifically name Moscow in public.
Last week, Finnish officials named the NewNew Polar Bear as the prime suspect as the course and positioning of the 169-meter-long ship in the Baltic Sea coincided with the time and place of the gas pipeline damage.
Recent photos published on social media of the Chinese vessel, which called at the port of St. Petersburg in Russia during its Baltic Sea voyage, show the vessel is missing one of its anchors.
The Marine Traffic website shows the ship is currently sailing on Russian northern waters and is presumably heading back to China via the Northern Sea Route.
Finnish investigators said they have tried several times to contact the ship’s captain but without success and are now cooperating with Chinese officials on the case.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said at a regular government media briefing on Monday that Beijing has called for an “objective, fair and professional” investigation into the damage to the BalticConnector and stressed that the Chinese vessel was sailing normally at the time.
New photos by the Finnish Border Guard showed substantial damage to the 300-million euro gas pipeline that connects Finland to the European gas network. The BalticConnector pipeline was launched for commercial use at the beginning of 2020.
Repair work is expected to take at least until the end of April 2024.
A Finland-Estonia and Sweden-Estonia telecom cable was damaged at the same time as the pipeline.
Finnish authorities say they believe the Finland-Estonia data cable damage is tied to the Chinese vessel as well.