UPDATE: “The Estonian-owned cargo ship Helt SUNK on Thursday off the Ukrainian port of Odesa after an explosion,” Igor Ilves, managing director of Tallinn-based manager Vista Shipping Agency, told Reuters. “Two crew members were in a life raft at sea while four others were unaccounted for.”

“The vessel has finally sunk,” he said. “Two of the crew are in a raft on the water and four others are missing. I don’t know where they are at the moment.” Ilves said the vessel might have struck a mine.

“Estonia is a member of NATO, leading to fears the sinking could spark further conflict in Eastern Europe,” writes Jonathan Saul of Reuters.

The following is the original article published this morning just before the ship sank:

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) The Ukrainian Navy has accused the Russian Black Sea Fleet of using civilian vessels for cover — a tactic that it said Russian ground forces were also using. The Ukrainians accused the Russians of forcing the Estonia – NATO member – owned merchant ship M/V Helt, to enter the dangerous zone of the Black Sea “so that the occupiers can cover themselves with a civilian ship as a human shield.” The Ukrainian Navy said the Russians had threatened to fire on the ship if it did not comply.

The Ukrainian Navy is calling the incident an illegal act of piracy.

Ukraine’s military headquarters said on Thursday that Russia was sending four amphibious assault ships to land troops near Odesa, a city of 1 million and a major seaport. Images on social media purported to show the landing craft and their escort standing off the southern coast of Crimea, opposite the coastline that includes Odesa.

As the Russian Navy approached Ukraine closed navigation in the north-western part of the Black Sea to assure vessel safety. One ship – the Estonia-owned, Panama flagged bulker M/V Helt – did not get far enough away and was allegedly ordered by the Russian Navy to position itself as a shield.

Also Read: Northern Black Sea Is Now A ‘Warlike Area’ As Navy Fails To Protect Shipping In NATO Waters

“The Russian Black Sea Fleet continues the tactics of Russian ground forces trying to hide behind civilian lives,” said a spokesman for the Ukrainian Navy. “The Russian fleet had already fired on 2 civilian ships and captured 2 ships of the Russian occupiers including the Sapphire, a search and rescue ship on a humanitarian mission.”

Ukrainian officials said that Russian ships gave the commercial ship an ultimatum. They claim a Russian warship ordered HELT to enter the dangerous zone of the Black Sea to protect themselves from Ukrainian artillery – using the civilian ship as a human shield – if the ship did not comply the Russian Navy threatened to open fire on the HELT.

“This is nothing but 21st century piracy,” said the Ukrainian Navy official.

M/V Helt Photo by Peter aus Holtenau via Marine Traffic

M/V HELT is a General Cargo that was built in 1985 (37 years ago) and is sailing under the flag of Panama. She is 256 feet (79meters) long ship owned by Vista Shipping Agency in Tallinn, Estonia. She is flagged in Panama and is classed by Norway’s DNV Classification Society. (DNV has not yet issued a statement).

This incident came hours after NATO warned that Russians have already attacked merchant ships both flagged and owned by NATO nations. NATO also warned that military unites mined sea routes used by civilian ships in the Northern Black Sea. It is unclear if the mines are Russian or if Ukraine mined the approaches to Odesa to prevent Russian warships from entering.

Splash 24/7 reports there are still 105 merchant ships in Ukrainian waters this morning, down from 157 at the the start of the war.

NATO Fails To Protect NATO Owned Or Flagged Ships

Despite attacks on NATO owned and flagged ships the US Navy and NATO warships are notably absent from the Black Sea and NATO has done little to respond to these attacks beyond saying that commercial ships are “encouraged to stay well informed about these and keep well clear of the areas as well as warships and military crafts”.

Also Read: U.S. Navy Left The Black Sea Unprotected Allowing Russia To Invade Ukraine

“I am sure that the ships stuck in Odesa, Chornomorsk, Yuzhny, Mykolaiv, and Kherson are pretty aware of the situation.” said says Sal Mercogliano, author of Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics. “They must be aware considering they are blockaded in by the Russian Baltic Fleet, denied permission to leave by the Ukrainians, and have to worry about potential mines.”

Could The Russian Navy Attack Ships Outside The Black Sea?

Could the Russian Navy attack merchant ships outside the Black Sea? Most naval experts we interviewed say this is unlikely but they do acknowledge that the highly unpredictable nature of Russian aggression makes it difficult to make accurate predictions.

“This is a dynamic situation,” said one retired US Naval Intelligence officer. “All bets are off”

The majority of mariners gCaptain interviewed are frustrated by the lack of communication from NATO’s shipping coordination center, and the US Navy has done less. While AIS reports say there are currently no US Flagged ships in the Black Sea, American ships are sailing in close proximity to Russian warships stationed in other waters including the Mediterranean. Despite this proximity and the unpredictable nature of Russian military forces… US Navy Admirals and US Maritime Administration (MARAD) officials have not provided any guidance to US Merchant Marine ships since February 13th… a full 11 days prior to the Russian invasion.

While both NATO and the US Navy have acknowledged that the Russian Navy is belligerent, they have provided no guidance to ships operating near Russia’s northern coasts on the Baltic Sea and the Barents Sea or near Russian Navy patrols operating in international waters.

“I’m not really sure what to do if we are hailed by a Russian Warship,” said one US Merchant Marine captain. “For now we are just pretending that everything is A-Ok in the world. I try not to think about it. The only thing that has changed for me is a slight feeling of nervousness.”

Also Read: Editorial: Admiral, I Am NOT Ready For War by John Konrad

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