Greenpeace demands ship’s release

Greenpeace yesterday demanded the release of 30 activists including six Britons detained at sea following protests over oil drilling in the Arctic.

Armed Russian officials abseiled from helicopters on Thursday onto Greenpeace’s vessel Arctic Sunrise, which was in the Arctic’s Pechora Sea near oil company Gazprom’s rig to protest against attempts to drill for oil there.

Greenpeace said the crew, which includes six UK nationals, remained in the custody of Russian officials yesterday and the environmental group had not had any contact with the ship since it was taken over.

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Two activists had already been arrested by the coastguard for a separate protest in which they had scaled the Gazprom oil rig.

The Arctic Sunrise was yesterday understood to be several days from land, but Greenpeace said it appeared to be heading west towards Russian territorial waters.

Greenpeace campaigners have protested outside Russian embassies around the world, including London, and a letter demanding the release of the activists and the Arctic Sunrise icebreaker has been handed in to Russian officials.

Ben Ayliffe, head of Greenpeace International’s Arctic oil campaign, said: “The safety of our activists remains our top priority and we are working hard to establish what is facing them. They have done nothing to warrant this level of aggression and have been entirely peaceful throughout.

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“In our last phone call with the ship, the crew said that their spirits remains high and they have been boosted by messages of support from thousands of people who stand with them to oppose dangerous Arctic oil drilling.”

Greenpeace claims the Arctic Sunrise was boarded illegally, as the ship was inside Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in which foreign vessels should be free to navigate.

The environmental group also responded to claims that a safety pod used in the protest resembled a bomb, saying it was designed to keep activists warm, was around 3m by 2m (10ft by 7ft), brightly coloured and covered in Greenpeace logos.

The green group is campaigning against attempts by oil companies to extract oil from the waters of the Arctic, warning a spill would be highly environmentally damaging and that extraction of more fossil fuels will add to climate change.

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Gazprom’s plans to start drilling from the Prirazlomnaya platform in the first quarter of 2014 raised the risk of an oil spill in an area that contains three nature reserves protected by Russian law, campaigners said.

In the letter to the embassies Greenpeace said: “Greenpeace International is in the Russian Arctic to bear witness and express non-violent opposition towards oil companies’ destructive and reckless oil drilling plans.

“Our peaceful protest was met with extreme and disproportionate force from the Russian coastguard who on Wednesday fired 11 warning shots at our ship, the MY Arctic Sunrise, and threatened our activists with knives and guns.”

The environmental group said it was seeking the release of all 30 activists who had been detained by the Russian coastguard, as well as the vessel. It also said it had not received any formal confirmation of possible charges and the activists had been denied access to legal or consular assistance.

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The Foreign Office said it had approached the Russian authorities and asked for consular access.

A security official said activists could face terrorism charges.

One activist aboard the vessel, Faiza Oulahsen, said on Thursday that about 15 armed men had boarded the Arctic Sunrise, aggressively herding 29 activists, who included six Britons, into one compartment. The vessel’s captain was held separately on the bridge.

“They used violence against some of us, they were hitting people, kicking people down, pushing people,” she said in a phone call from the ship.

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On Wednesday, two activists had been arrested after an attempt to board an offshore drilling platform belonging to state natural gas company Gazprom.

The Coast Guard is part of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

A FSB representative in Murmansk told radio listeners that the charges may include terrorism.

Under Russian law, terrorism is any action aimed at “violating general safety, frightening the public or influencing government action” that damages property or threatens the lives of others. It carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison if the person was unarmed.

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