Finland Says Hong Kong-Flagged Ship Anchor Breached Pipeline

(Bloomberg) -- Finnish authorities raised a ship anchor on Tuesday from the seafloor in the area where an underwater gas pipeline was damaged earlier this month, saying a Hong Kong-flagged vessel appears to have caused the incident.

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The National Bureau of Investigation displayed pictures at a news conference of what it said was a 6-ton anchor that appears to be missing one of its arms, potentially belonging to the Hong Kong-flagged vessel “Newnew Polar Bear.” An investigation is proceeding into whether the damage was intentional, officials told reporters in Vantaa, just outside of Helsinki.

Authorities in the newest member of the NATO defense alliance are working to ascertain what happened to the pipeline in the Gulf of Finland that began leaking Oct. 8. The investigation has proceeded on the premise of sabotage, with the incident reviving concerns over the safety of Europe’s energy infrastructure as winter approaches.

“The sequence of events has been established on the basis of evidence and data, and the vessel ‘Newnew Polar Bear,’ flying the flag of Hong Kong, is believed to have caused the damage,” the Finnish authorities said in a separate statement.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has responded by increasing patrols in the Baltic Sea, dispatching aircraft and minehunters to the area.

Officials had already concluded the damage was caused by an external mechanical force, and that no explosion took place.

The investigation showed drag marks as wide as 4 meters (13 feet) on the seabed to the west of the site where the 77-kilometer Balticconnector gas pipeline had been damaged. The pipeline has moved eastward on the seafloor, the police said. Authorities had previously discovered “an extremely heavy object” in a 3-meter hole near the site, which was cleaned up using a robot and lifted from the seabed after three dives.

Last week, the focus in the probe shifted to the role of the “Newnew Polar Bear” ship, which sailed over the pipeline on Oct. 8 on its way to St. Petersburg and left the Russian city on Oct. 10, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The vessel only called at Russian ports since arriving from Asia in September, the data show. Its registered owner is Hainan Xin Xin Yang Shipping and its beneficial owner is unknown.

The vessel could not be stopped as it was sailing in international waters, while it “appeared reluctant to be approached by Finnish authorities,” the police said. Finnish officials are “closely” cooperating with Chinese authorities, it said.

The government of Russia’s western neighbor has declined to point any fingers at potential culprits, and President Vladimir Putin has denied that the Kremlin was involved in the rupture of Balticconnector pipeline. Finland is no longer looking at the movements of Russian vessel “Sevmorput” as part of the main probe, the police said. It had earlier identified that vessel, along with the “Newnew Polar Bear,” among those being investigated.

The Balticconnector pipeline isn’t the first energy asset to be damaged in the Baltic Sea, as both links of the Nord Stream gas pipeline were broken in explosions just over a year ago in waters near Denmark and Sweden, with the outcome of investigations into those events yet to be made public.

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--With assistance from Gina Turner.

(Updates with details, comments from second paragraph.)

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