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Arctic Sea Hijacking: Mystery Continues After Ship Found

JIM HEINTZ   08/17/09 06:40 PM ET   AP

Arctic Sea

MOSCOW — The high seas mystery over the freighter Arctic Sea was far from solved Monday after the Russian navy found the ship off West Africa, far from the Algerian port where it was supposed to dock two weeks ago.

A full cargo of questions remained:

Was the ship attacked near Sweden as reported? Was this an unheard-of case of piracy in European waters? Or a murky commercial dispute? Why was the Arctic Sea found off Cape Verde, some 2,000 miles from its intended port?

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov informed President Dmitry Medvedev that the Russian-crewed freighter had been found safe about 300 miles from Cape Verde and that the 15 crew members were taken aboard another vessel for questioning.

The details stopped there.

Since the Arctic Sea sailed from the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on July 21 with a euro1.3 million ($1.8 million) cargo of timber, rumors and unconfirmed reports of misadventure has followed it.

On July 30, Swedish police said the ship's owner had reported that the crew claimed the vessel was boarded by masked men on July 24 near the Swedish island of Gotland. The invaders reportedly tied up the crew, beat them, claimed they were looking for drugs, then sped off about 12 hours later in an inflatable craft.

By the time the Swedish report 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 France's coast the next day, but that was the last known trace of it until Monday.

The Arctic Sea was scheduled to make port in Algeria on Aug. 4. But after it was late by more than a week, Medvedev ordered the defense ministry to use all necessary means to find the freighter.

Subsequently, a ship resembling the 98-meter (320-foot) Arctic Sea was rumored to have been seen in the Spanish port of San Sebastian – even though the port is suitable only for small vessels – then in the area of Cape Verde. On Saturday, a Russian maritime expert said the ship's tracking device had sprung to life off the coast of France, but France said the signals came from Russian warships.

Adding to the mystery, Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told the ITAR-Tass news agency Monday that bogus information was deliberately provided to the news media "which did not allow them to calculate the true actions of the Russian forces."

With details still sparse, Viktor Matveyev, director of the ship's operator Solchart, told The Associated Press, "We are all incredibly happy. Now the big work starts to find out what happened."

Serdyukov said the crew and the ship were found about 5 p.m. EDT Sunday about 300 miles (480 kilometers) away from the island nation of Cape Verde.

"The crew is alive, all are alive and healthy," he said.

The crew members were taken aboard the Russian navy frigate Ladny, Serdyukov said.

The disappearance of the 98-meter (320-foot) Arctic Sea perplexed experts and officials across Europe, with speculation about what happened ranging from its being seized by pirates to being involved in a murky commercial dispute.

Finnish investigators reported Saturday that the ship's owners had received a ransom demand. But it was not clear if the demand came from people who actually held the ship, or from opportunistic charlatans.

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Associated Press Writer David Nowak in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Filed by Hanna Ingber Win  |