MOSCOW – For more than two weeks, the freighter Arctic Sea seemed to have vanished in the Atlantic Ocean’s vastness, but officials said Tuesday they knew where it was all along and were just staying mum in order to bring a dangerous hijacking drama to a bloodless end.
A Russian naval vessel reached the Arctic Sea late Sunday in waters near Cape Verde, thousands of miles (kilometres) from the Algerian port it was to have docked at on Aug. 4. Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Tuesday that eight suspected hijackers were in custody.
It was the first official confirmation that the ship had been attacked, after weeks of rumours and clues about why the vessel might have disappeared.
The Maritime Authority in Malta, where the Russian-crewed ship is registered, said in a statement late Tuesday that “The movements of the MV Arctic Sea were always known for several days, notwithstanding reports that the ship had ‘disappeared.”‘
Authorities in Finland, Malta and Sweden had agreed “not to disclose any sensitive information in order not to jeopardize the life and safety of the persons on board and the integrity of the ship,” the statement said.
The ship left the Finnish port of Pietarsaari with a load of timber on July 21. More than a week later, Swedish police said they were investigating a report that masked men had raided the ship and beat the crew near the Swedish island of Gotland before speeding off 12 hours later.
The suspected hijackers – citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Russia – were arrested without a shot being fired, state news agencies quoted Serdyukov as saying. The ship’s 15 crew members were safe and were taken aboard by the navy for questioning.
The motive for seizing the aging freighter remained unclear. Security and maritime experts said the Arctic Sea’s mysterious four-week journey pointed to something other than piracy, with some suggesting state involvement or a secret cargo, possibly of nuclear materials.
The armed hijackers had boarded the freighter under the pretext that there was a problem with their inflatable craft, Serdyukov reportedly said. They then forced the crew to change course and turned off the Arctic Sea’s navigation equipment, he said, according to Russian news agencies.
By the time the report of the attack had emerged, the ship had already passed through the English Channel, where it made its last known radio contact on July 28. Signals from the ship’s tracking device were picked up off the French coast late the next day, but that was the last confirmed trace of it until Monday.
The ship’s signal going dead coincided with news of the reported attack.
Experts and officials across pe said the saga of the missing 98-meter (320-foot) freighter was perplexing.
“The whole thing has been sniffy from start to finish,” said David Osler, a maritime journalist at Lloyd’s List in London.
Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht, said he had spoken with some of the Arctic Sea’s sailors and was more puzzled than ever.
“The vessel had all the necessary modern means of communication and emergency alarms, and was located in waters where regular mobile telephones work,” he said at a news conference. “To hijack the vessel so that no one makes a peep – not one alarm goes off – can you imagine how that could be? I can’t.”
Voitenko, whose company Sovfracht specializes in anti-piracy security consulting, said the hijacking was beyond the means of ordinary pirates.
“The operation cost more than the cargo and ship combined,” he said.
The 18-year-old freighter had a cargo of timber that Finnish wood supplier Rets Timber said was worth 1.3 million ($1.8 million).
Port officials in Pietarsaari confirmed the timber was on board before the Arctic Sea left and said no radiation had been detected on board.
Voitenko said he suspected the freighter was carrying an undeclared cargo and that state interests were involved. He refused to elaborate.
Prominent analyst Yulia Latynina also said she believed the ship had a secret cargo, and noted that before setting sail the freighter was in the Russian port of Kaliningrad for repairs. Latynina, writing in the online Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said she suspected the involvement of special services.
She and others have reported widespread speculation that the Arctic Sea was smuggling nuclear materials.
British maritime security expert Nick Davis said he considered state involvement to be far-fetched and predicted it would turn out to be “a straightforward case of criminals trying to extort money out of an owner.”
Finnish investigators said a ransom demand had been made, though it was unclear to whom.
Swedish police were still investigating. Police spokeswoman Ylva Voxby said they had received pictures of the crew’s injuries from the Arctic Sea’s operator, which had received the pictures from the ship by email.
Voxby also said Swedish police still haven’t received any witness reports confirming that an inflatable boat approached the freighter in the Baltic Sea. However, police have confirmed through radar pictures and other vessels in the area that the Arctic Sea made strange movements at the time of the alleged hijacking.
Davis, of the Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre, said the full story may never be known, in part because the Russian government has been playing it down.
The government initially appeared reluctant to take action, and only sent the navy to search on Aug. 12 after relatives of the crew publicly appealed for help in finding the missing ship.
The Arctic Sea, which flies under a Maltese flag, is operated by the Finnish company Solchart, which has Russian management and a sister company providing technical support in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk, the home of all 15 crew members.
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz, David Nowak and Mike Eckel in Moscow and Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki contributed to this report.