By Nerijus Adomaitis, Tim Hepher and Phil Stewart
OSLO/PARIS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A US Navy reconnaissance plane was flying hours after the first damage appeared near the site of the ruptured Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea, according to a track verified by Reuters, a flight that said Washington routine.
Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines burst on September 26, dumping gas into the Baltic Sea off the coasts of Denmark and Sweden. Seismologists registered explosions in the area and police in several countries have launched investigations.
Flight data showed that a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft was over the North Sea at 0003 GMT when Swedish seismologists recorded an underwater explosion of the kind described later south-east of the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea.
The plane, which had flown from Iceland, flew a pattern of regular circuit-shaped laps over Poland before stalling towards the Baltic pipeline area, data showed.
GRAPHIC – US Navy plane flew after rupture near Nord Stream 2
The aircraft’s identity could not be immediately ascertained due to the nature of the rotating identification code sometimes used by such aircraft, but the US Navy confirmed that it was an American aircraft when presented with data from Reuters.
“The US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft shown in the tracking data was conducting a routine maritime reconnaissance flight in the Baltic Sea unrelated to the Nord Stream pipeline leaks,” a US Navy spokesman said.
When asked if the information gathered could help investigators investigate the pipeline ruptures, Captain Tamara Lawrence, spokeswoman for the US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, said, “We have no additional information to provide at this time.”
It’s unclear what role the US military is playing in assisting the European investigation into the pipeline breaches, although President Joe Biden has spoken of possibly sending divers down.
According to the data, the aircraft flew south of Bornholm towards north-west Poland a few minutes after 0100 GMT, where it circled overland for about an hour before flying into the area where the gas leak was reported around 0244 GMT.
It came as close as 24 km (15 miles) from the reported leak site, circling once and flying toward the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, a frequent monitoring point, analysts say.
The Polish, Swedish, Danish and German defense ministries were not immediately available for comment.
Flight data between 0339 GMT and 0620 GMT is missing, but on the way back at 0700 GMT the aircraft flew about 4 km north of the reported leak site.
Reuters used a partial flight map from US-based tracking website Radarbox, supplemented with data provided to Reuters by Flightradar24 of Sweden, to reconstruct the P-8’s path.
Flightradar24 data showed the aircraft took off and landed on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwest Iceland, where Keflavik Air Base is located along with the reported P-8 hangar facilities.
The data emerged as the Baltic Sea remains a front for Cold War-style tensions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to analysts, who warn it’s impossible to pinpoint the reason for certain military flight routes with certainty.
“The Baltics are a very active confrontational area with a lot of probing and an endless game of chess,” said UK-based defense analyst Francis Tusa.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Thursday the pipeline rupture was “most likely” the work of Russian special services, citing information from Western allies.
Western governments and officials have so far avoided pointing the finger directly at Moscow, while Russia dismissed all accusations of responsibility as “stupid,” blaming the United States and its allies instead.
(Additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Marek Strzelecki in Warsaw, editing by Terje Solsvik and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)