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 / Updated  / Source: Reuters

LONDON/MOSCOW — Russian tankers have supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three occasions in recent months by transferring cargoes at sea, according to two senior Western European security sources, providing an economic lifeline to the secretive Communist state.

The sales of oil or oil products from Russia, the world's second biggest oil exporter and a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, breach U.N. sanctions, the security sources said.

The transfers in October and November indicate that smuggling from Russia to North Korea has evolved to loading cargoes at sea since Reuters reported in September that North Korean ships were sailing directly from Russia to their homeland.

"Russian vessels have made ship-to-ship transfers of petrochemicals to North Korean vessels on several occasions this year in breach of sanctions," the first security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Related: U.S. sanctions North Korea missile experts as Russia offers to mediate

A second source, who independently confirmed the existence of the Russian ship-to-ship fuel trade with North Korea, said there was no evidence of Russian state involvement in the latest transfers.

The two security sources cited naval intelligence and satellite imagery of the vessels operating out of Russian Far Eastern ports on the Pacific but declined to disclose further details to Reuters, saying it was classified.

Russia's Foreign Ministry and the Russian Customs Service both declined to comment, The owner of one ship accused of smuggling oil to North Korea denied any such activity.

The latest report came as China, responding on Friday to criticism from President Donald Trump, denied it had illicitly shipped oil products to North Korea.

North Korea relies on imported fuel to keep its struggling economy functioning. It also requires oil for its intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear program that the United States says threatens the peace in Asia.

"The vessels are smuggling Russian fuel from Russian Far Eastern ports to North Korea," said the first security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Image: Russian Oil Tanker
This US Coast Guard photo released January 20, 2012 shows tanker vessel Renda remaining offshore as the transfer of 1.3 million gallons of fuel nears completion on January 18, 2012.Eric J. Chandler / US Coast Guard via AFP - Getty Images file

Reuters was unable to independently verify that the vessels had transferred fuel to North Korean vessels, whether the Russian state knew about the sales or how many Russian vessels were involved in the transfers. It was also unclear how much fuel may have been smuggled.

Ship satellite positioning data consulted by Reuters and available on Reuters Eikon shows unusual movements by some of the Russian vessels named by the security sources including switching off the transponders which give a precise location.

The security sources said the Russian-flagged tanker Vityaz was one vessel that had transferred fuel to North Korean vessels.

The Vityaz left the port of Slavyanka near Vladivostok in Russia on Oct. 15 with 1,600 tons of oil, according to Russian port control documents.

Documents submitted by the vessel's agent to the Russian State Port Control authority showed its destination as a fishing fleet in the Japan Sea. Shipping data showed the vessel switched off its transponder for a few days as it sailed into open waters.

According to the European security sources, the Vityaz conducted a ship-to-ship transfer with the North Korean Flagged Sam Ma 2 tanker in open seas during October.

Reuters could not independently verify the transfer as ship tracking data showed that the Sam Ma 2 had turned off its transponder from the start of August.

The owner of the Russian vessel denied any contact with North Korean vessels but also said it was unaware that the vessel was fuelling fishing boats.

Yaroslav Guk, deputy director of the tanker's owner, Vladivostok-based Alisa Ltd, said the vessel had no contacts with North Korean vessels.

An official at East Coast Ltd, the vessel's transport agent, declined to comment.

Two other Russian flagged tankers made similar journeys between the middle of October and November, leaving from the ports of Slavyanka and Nakhodka into open seas where they switched off their transponders, shipping data showed.

In September, Reuters reported that at least eight North Korean ships that left Russia loaded with fuel this year headed for their homeland despite declaring other destinations, a ploy that U.S. officials say is often used to undermine sanctions.