A Russian trawler accused of illegally fishing off Norway and evading prosecution entered Russian waters Wednesday, and two Norwegian inspectors on board were set to be transferred back to a Norwegian vessel, officials said. The trawler, Elektron, had been seized Saturday by a Norwegian Coast Guard vessel for alleged fisheries violations but fled the cutter escorting it to port and headed to Russia's waters with the Norwegian inspectors still on board.
Elektron entered Russian waters early Wednesday, with Russian and Norwegian vessels escorting from their respective sides of the border, naval spokesman Igor Dygalo said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Dygalo said the two inspectors would be transferred Thursday to a Norwegian vessel, which will be allowed access to Russian waters for the transfer, Dygalo said. Earlier plans envisaged using two intermediary Russian vessels to avoid letting the Norwegian ship into Russian waters.
"With the vessel now in Russian territorial waters, we expect the Norwegian inspectors to reach a Norwegian vessel or Norwegian territory as soon as possible," Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said in a statement.
Both Russian and Norwegian officials sought to downplay the incident.
Chief of Russia's Border Guard Service Vladimir Pronichev said Russia would assist its Norwegian colleagues in investigating the incident, according to the AP.
"If the crew violated the law while fishing, they will be made accountable," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying.
Stoere said the cause would be followed up by Norwegian prosecutors, and stressed that this was a matter between Norwegian fisheries authorities and a private Russian trawler.
But the controversy appears to have been further aggravated by an incident with another Russian trawler, the Grigory Arlashkin, which was following Elektron and trying to prevent Norwegian vessels from arresting it, Russian media reported.
Grigory Arlashkin's captain claimed Norwegian navy officers threw a net from a helicopter that entangled the Russian ship's propeller, rendering it immobile and prompting it to seek help from rescue vessels.
Norwegian military officials denied that, according to ITAR-Tass.
On December 14, President Putin holds his annual Q&A session with Russian and foreign journalists. This conference is considered to be the beginning of his presidential campaign