Germany searched ship suspected of transporting Nord Stream saboteurs

German investigators earlier this year ordered the search of a ship in connection with explosions that damaged Nord Stream gas pipelines linking Russia and western Europe.

The office of the attorney-general said on Wednesday it had the vessel searched in January as it suspected the ship “could have been used to transport explosive devices” used in underwater bombings that damaged two Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September.

The statement, which came after the New York Times and German media outlets Die Zeit and ARD reported that the suspected attackers may have had links to Ukraine, said that the identity of the perpetrators and their motives were being investigated.

It added that it was not yet possible to make “any reliable statements” about whether the attack had been ordered by a state.

Ukraine on Tuesday denied any involvement in the explosions.

German defence minister Boris Pistorius on Wednesday did not rule out that Russia may have carried out the attacks. Ahead of a meeting of EU defence ministers in Stockholm, he said that the attacks could have left deliberately misleading clues in a so-called “false-flag operation”. 

“That would not be the first case in history of such events,” he said, adding: “I am wary of jumping to conclusions.”

The attacks came several months after Russia had stopped piping gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipelines that had been operational since 2011. The Nord Stream 2 pipelines, which were about to come online in 2022, were blocked by German regulators months before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Pistorius added that, even if the perpetrators were proved to be Ukrainian, it would be important to “clearly distinguish” whether the group was acting with the knowledge of Ukraine’s government.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg also urged caution. “What we do know is that there was an attack against the Nord Stream pipelines. An act of sabotage,” he said. “But we have not been able to determine who was behind [it].” He added: “There are ongoing national investigations, and I think it’s right to wait until those are finalised before we say anything more about who was behind [it].”

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell declined to comment “on things where I don’t have clear information”. A senior EU official also urged caution about the reports.

The German daily newspaper Die Zeit, in a joint investigation with public broadcaster ARD, reported on Tuesday that investigators had found that a boat suspected of being used to conduct an attack was rented by a Poland-based company with Ukrainian owners.

The seaborne operation, it said, was carried out by a group — a captain, two divers, two diving assistants and a doctor — whose nationality was unknown.

The boat was returned to its owner in an uncleaned state, and investigators found traces of explosives in the cabin, according to the report.

The statement from the German attorney-general said that the employees of the German company that had leased out the boat were not suspected of any wrongdoing.

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