Belgium investigates 'Russian spy ship'

Ship appeared to pay particular attention to country's offshore wind farms, official said

A police boat patrols near wind farms in the Belgian section of the North Sea in May 2022. EPA
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A suspected Russian spy ship was seen off Belgium's North Sea coast, prompting the country to launch an investigation over fears that it was watching key energy and communications centres, a minister said on Tuesday.

The boat was seen in November after being reported in Dutch waters with its AIS beacon, a compulsory device allowing shipping authorities to identify and track vessels, switched off.

"We don't know the exact motives of this Russian ship, but let's not be naive," said Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, who is also Belgium's Minister for the North Sea.

"Especially if it behaves suspiciously near our wind farms, undersea gas pipelines and data cables, and other critical infrastructure."

Mr Van Quickenborne said Belgian maritime authorities had begun their own investigation and were working with other North Sea coastal states to increase security.

"The passage of this vessel should doubtless be seen in the broader context of the war in Ukraine," the minister's office said.

Russia's already tense relations with the West hit a low last year when Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine, and EU and Nato members, including Belgium, responded with sanctions.

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Nato powers have supplied Ukraine with advanced weapons and have been looking to shore up their own defences, including against any covert maritime sabotage.

In September last year, underwater bombings destroyed sections of the Nord Stream pipelines that had previously carried Russian natural gas to Germany.

Western countries have blamed the September pipeline explosions on Russia, but Moscow has accused the US of sabotage, and neither side has produced conclusive evidence.

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On January 11, Nato and the EU set up a joint working group to reinforce the protection of Europe's vital infrastructure, in particular energy supplies.

Mr Van Quickenborne said the suspect ship had appeared to pay particular attention to Belgium's offshore wind farms.

Updated: February 21, 2023, 9:38 PM