Seized Patriot missiles meant for South Korea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2011, 12:00am


A consignment of 69 Patriot surface-to-air missiles discovered on board an Isle of Man-flagged cargo ship at a Finnish port was destined for the South Korean armed forces under a legitimate United States military equipment sale, it emerged last night.

It was initially thought the missiles could be bound for China because the ship's next port of call was Shanghai, but officials confirmed yesterday the arms were for the South Korean air force.

The news came as Petri Lounatmaa, head of economic crime investigation at the Norwegian customs bureau, confirmed the arrest of the Ukrainian captain and first officer of Thor Liberty, a 5,400 deadweight tonne ship, on Wednesday for alleged export-licensing offences.

US consular officials in Hong Kong and Berlin were unable to confirm if the missiles, which have a 90kg warhead and a range of about 100 kilometres, came from US military stockpiles in Europe or elsewhere.

However, observers said the sale of the missiles was approved in 2007. Arms maker Raytheon won a US$17.2 million contract in December 2009 to upgrade South Korea's Patriot missile system, which is operated by two air brigades.

The missiles, together with about 160 tonnes of nitroguanidine explosives, were loaded on the ship at the north German port of Emden last week. Police said the missiles didn't have the right transit documents and the explosive wasn't properly stored.

The ship was detained by customs officers in Kotka, southern Finland, after dock workers who were loading a cargo of anchor chains noticed the ordnance and alerted authorities.

Inspections by Finnish defence, police and customs officials found that the Patriot missiles had been properly marked and safely loaded on the ship, according to detective superintendent Timo Virtanen of Finland's National Bureau of Investigation.

He confirmed assistance was being sought from various countries as inquiries continued.

The missiles were handled in Emden by specialist logistics firm Emder Verkehrs und Automotive Gesellschaft (EVAG), but Torsten Meinke, head of the company's ship and port agency department, declined to comment.