Russian coast guards on Monday boarded and inspected a Greenpeace icebreaker after it refused to leave the site of a planned protest against oil drilling in the Arctic.
On Saturday, the Dutch-flagged vessel entered without permission the Northern Sea Route in order to call attention to plans by Russian top oil firm Rosneft and its US partner ExxonMobil to drill in a remote nature reserve.
The Arctic Sunrise approached the site of the planned protest in the Kara Sea unhindered but on Sunday the Russian coast guard asked the ship to leave the area.
After Greenpeace refused to heed the request, four unarmed members of the Coast Guard “boarded the ship “without permission,” Greenpeace said in a statement.
The Russians boarded the icebreaker after the group dispatched inflatable boats with banners reading “Save the Arctic” near The Geolog Dmitry Nalivkin, an oil exploration vessel contracted by Rosneft and ExxonMobil, it said.
On Sunday, “the Russian coast guard announced the creation of a four nautical mile ‘exclusion zone’ around the Geolog Dmitry Nalivkin, preventing the activists from obtaining clear images of the vessel,” Greenpeace said.
Last week Greenpeace said Russia had refused permission to enter the Northern Sea Route on several occasions citing concerns about the icebreaker’s ability to withstand thick ice.
The global environmental group has called the move “a thinly veiled attempt to stifle peaceful protest”.
The Russian transportation ministry has accused the Greenpeace vessel of “crudely” violating Russian and international law.
The transportation ministry said on Saturday it had sent a letter to the foreign ministry with a request to get in touch with The Netherlands’ maritime authorities “with the aim of influencing the owner of the vessel on behalf of the flag state.”
The Netherlands said on Sunday Greenpeace’s right to peaceful protest was “indisputable,” adding that there was no reason to doubt the ship’s technical state.
Greenpeace said the plans to drill in the Russian Arctic National Park were in contravention of Russia’s own laws.
Established in 2009, the nature reserve is home to endangered species such as the bowhead whale, and it is a major breeding ground for polar bears.
Rosneft, headed by one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants, Igor Sechin, has said its offshore operations were “absolutely safe”.
Russia and the United States hope that the global warming melting the Arctic sea ice will help them tap the vast oil and gas resources believed to be buried in the region.