WORLDPOST
09/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Finland says ransom demanded for missing ship

JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW - A ransom demand has been received for the return of a Russian-manned freighter that went missing last month in the Atlantic, Finnish investigators said Saturday.

It was not immediately clear if the ransom demand was legitimate, and the whereabouts of the Arctic Sea, its 15 crew members and its euro1.3 million ($1.8 million) cargo of timber remain a mystery.

The crew had said they were attacked in Swedish waters four days before the ship disappeared on July 28, but there has been no confirmation that the ship was actually seized.

"A ransom demand has been made ... let's say it's a largish amount of money," Markku Ranta-Aho, of Finland's National Bureau of Investigation, told national YLE radio. He said the demand was addressed to the Finland-based company that owns the Arctic Sea, but he would not give details or say where the ship might be located for fear of endangering the crew.

The French Marines said Saturday the ship was likely near Cape Verde. Widespread reports on Friday also had placed the ship near the island nation off West Africa.

Cape Verde authorities said they had no new information Saturday, though Russia's ambassador to the country, Alexander Karpushin, said there was no confirmation the ship had been found.

Russian maritime Web site Sovfrakht said the ship's tracking system had sent signals on Saturday from the Bay of Biscay, some 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) north of Cape Verde. It cautioned, however, that the Arctic Sea's Automatic Identification System equipment may not be on the ship itself anymore. The signals disappeared after about an hour, it said.

The French Marines rejected the Web site's claim. Spokesman Capt. Jerome Baroe said the signals had come from Russian warships moving from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea.

Those ships are apparently different from the Russian navy vessels dispatched this week to search for the missing ship.

The Arctic Sea had set out from Finland on July 23 and was due in an Algerian port on Aug. 4. It vanished on July 28 after passing through the English Channel.

Efforts to pinpoint its location have been difficult in the vast Atlantic and with no communication from the ship's 15-member Russian crew.

Crew members had reported the ship was attacked on July 24 in the Baltic Sea off the Swedish island of Oland. They said a dozen masked men boarded the ship, tied them up, beat them, questioned them about drug trafficking and searched the freighter before leaving.

Such an attack would have been unusual in European waters, and raised questions because it was not reported until the freighter had passed through Britain's busy shipping lanes. There have been fears that some of the attackers might still be aboard, or that the ship came under attack a second time.

Radio messages from the freighter were later picked up along coasts of France and Portugal.

The European Commission suggested Friday the ship may have come under attack a second time off the Portuguese coast.

Portugal's Foreign Ministry said, however, the ship was never in Portuguese waters.

The ship's Russian operator, Solchart Arkhangelsk, said it had no information about a possible second attack.

It said the Arctic Sea's captain was 50-year-old Sergei Zaretsky, and the sailors were all from the northwest Russian port city of Arkhangelsk.

Speculation on what might have happened has ranged from suspicions that the ship was carrying secret cargo -- possibly narcotics -- to theories about a commercial dispute. Security experts have been wary of attributing its disappearance to bandits, noting that piracy is almost unheard of in European waters.