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CNN Today

Russia Demands Release of Vessel Seized on Suspicion of Smuggling Iraqi Oil

Aired February 4, 2000 - 2:39 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: A Russian news agency is reporting that Moscow plans to send a military reconnaissance ship to the Mediterranean Sea next week in connection with that detained oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. Russia demands the release of that vessel seized Wednesday on suspicion it was smuggling Iraqi oil in violation of a U.N. embargo.

We get more now from CNN's military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pentagon sources say this Russian oil tanker was tracked for a month by spy satellites, U.S. Navy ships and P-3 surveillance aircraft. They say it was caught red-handed entering an Iraqi port, loading up on oil that, under a U.N. embargo, Iraq is prohibited from exporting. The tanker was then kept under 24-hour-a-day watch as it traveled a favorite smuggler's route: south from the Iraqi port, hugging the coast of Iran to stay out of international waters, then darting across the Gulf of Oman. That's where the U.S. Navy seized the ship.

On Russian television, the private company that owns the tanker said it was assured the ship never went to Iraq. Russian officials demanded the ships release, insisting its oil came from Iran. But Pentagon sources say records from the ship's own satellite navigation system show it made two, possibly three trips to Iraq.

REAR ADM. CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: We believe this vessel is carrying contraband.

MCINTYRE: The U.S. and its allies stopped more than 700 ships in the Persian Gulf last year and seized 19. It's rare for Russian- flagged ships to be caught, but it did happen at least once before in 1998. And despite the embargo enforcement armada, hundreds of ships sneak through, especially during times like now when rising oil prices makes smuggling more lucrative.

JAMES FOLEY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Illicit oil exports via the Persian Gulf averaged about 50,000 barrels a day for much of 1998. Oil smuggling increased sharply in the fall of 1999 and has now reached about 100,000 barrels a day.

MCINTYRE: That means roughly $25 million a month to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

(on camera): The U.S. is watching a second Russian ship suspected of oil smuggling, but it has not left the safety of Iranian territorial waters. The State Department says there's no evidence any smuggling was sanctioned by the Russian government.

Jamie McIntyre, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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