A Russian fiber optic cable under the Baltic Sea was completely severed last month when a Chinese container ship passed over it, state company Rostelecom said on Tuesday.
Finnish investigators have already said they suspect the vessel, the NewNew Polar Bear, of causing serious damage to the nearby Balticconnector gas pipeline by dragging its anchor over the sea bed during the same voyage.
Two other Baltic telecoms cables were damaged on the same night of October 7th, along the route that the ship was travelling, according to shipping data reviewed by Reuters.
The incidents have highlighted the vulnerability of marine cables and pipelines at a time when security fears are running high because of the Ukraine war. Investigators have yet to establish who was responsible for blowing up Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic last year.
A Rostelecom spokesperson, responding to emailed questions from Reuters, said the double armored fiber optic cable, with a thickness of 40.4 mm (1.6 inches), had been cut completely.
Asked if the company believed the Chinese ship had caused the damage, the spokesperson said: “At the time of the damage to the fiber optic cable, the Chinese ship New Polar Bear was at a point with coordinates coinciding with the route of the communication line.”
China has said it is willing to provide necessary information on the incident in accordance with international law. NewNew Shipping, the owner and operator of the NewNew Polar Bear, has previously declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
In a statement earlier on Tuesday, Rostelecom publicly acknowledged the damage to its cable for the first time, describing it as an accident and without mentioning the cause. It said the site of the damage was only 28 km (17 miles) from where the Balticconnector gas pipeline was ruptured soon afterwards.
In total, three Baltic telecoms cables and one pipeline were damaged in the space of less than nine hours.
Data from shipping intelligence firm MarineTraffic, reviewed by Reuters, showed that the New Polar Bear passed over a Swedish-Estonian telecoms cable at 1513 GMT, then over the Russian cable at around 2020 GMT, the Balticconnector at 2220 GMT and a Finland-Estonia telecoms line at 2349 GMT.
Rostelecom said the damage to its cable was recorded at 2030 GMT.
As far back as Oct. 13, President Vladimir Putin dismissed as “complete rubbish” suggestions that Russia might have been to blame for the Balticconnector damage and floated the possibility that a ship’s anchor could have caused it.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin referred further questions to the Communications Ministry, which did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Finnish police announced on Oct. 24 that they had found a ship’s anchor near the broken gas pipeline. They have not concluded whether the damage was caused accidentally or deliberately. Operator Gasgrid has said the pipeline could be out of commission until April or longer.
Rostelecom said a specialised vessel had started repairs on the fiber optic cable on Sunday and that the work was expected to take 10 days, depending on weather conditions.
The cable runs from St Petersburg to Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. The company said users had not been affected because data was transmitted via terrestrial routes and backup satellite channels.
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