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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hijacking Suspects Arrive in Moscow

Rossia / APA Rossia television image on Thursday of a suspected hijacker being led to a bus on the Cape Verde island of Sal.

The military airlifted the suspected hijackers of the Arctic Sea and most of its Russian crew from Cape Verde to Moscow on Thursday, after the lumber freighter mysteriously vanished and reappeared in the Atlantic.

Eleven of the 15 crew members arrived in Moscow, while the captain and three sailors remained on the ship, which was adrift about 200 nautical miles from the West African island nation of Cape Verde.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said the freighter was sailing to the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.

The sailors and their suspected captors arrived in two separate Il-76 cargo jets at the Chkalovsky military airport in the Moscow region, news agencies reported.

It was unclear why the military had sent the massive cargo planes to bring home less than 20 men plus a handful of investigators. Some media reports said three Il-76 jets had been dispatched to the Cape Verde island of Sal, where the men had been brought after being taken aboard a Navy ship Monday.

Vesti state television showed eight suspected hijackers being rushed in handcuffs from an Il-76. The footage showed soldiers pushing down the men’s heads and twisting their arms behind their backs.

One of the suspects, Andrei Lunev, told Rossia in an interview onboard the Il-76 that he and his colleagues belonged to an environmental group and had been fished out of the sea during a storm on the night of July 25. He denied that they had weapons and said they couldn’t leave because the Arctic Sea’s captain wouldn’t give them gas.

Asked which environmental group they belonged to, Lunev said, “I don’t know, some kind of private group.”

Rossia pointedly questioned the claim, saying the suspects had multiple tattoos and criminal pasts.

The suspects were taken to Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo, a top-security prison run by the Justice Ministry, Rossia state television reported.

Television showed the Arctic Sea crew members walking in orderly fashion from their Il-76.

Rossia / AP
Arctic Sea crew members arriving at the Chkalovsky air base on Thursday.

Relatives said they still could not get in touch with the crew Thursday evening, and the Gazeta newspaper reported that the 11 men had been whisked off to prison together with the hijackers.

Investigators want to make sure that the sailors are not in cahoots with the suspected hijackers, the report said, citing an Investigative Committee source.

“Nobody plans to put the sailors behind bars,” the source said.

One of the sailors’ wives, Oxana Petruk, told Gazeta that she still had not been able to contact her husband. “I just saw him on television,” she said.

Reached by telephone Thursday evening, an Investigative Committee spokeswoman refused to comment on the report and referred a reporter to an official statement.

The Arctic Sea’s voyage has been shrouded in mystery since it left the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on July 22 to sail to the Algerian port of Bejaia.

Two days later, it was said to have been attacked by unknown gunmen in Swedish waters in what would be the first act of piracy in the Baltic Sea in centuries.

The Investigative Committee said Thursday that crew members had confirmed the ship’s seizure in Swedish waters.

“They told investigators that their ship was approached by a high-speed inflatable boat with eight men dressed in black with ‘POLICIA’ written on their backs,” the committee said in a statement posted on its web site.

The armed attackers boarded the ship and took it under their control, forcing the crew to follow all their orders, the statement said

“Policia” is the wrong spelling for “police” in all of the region’s languages — the Swedish word is “polis,” the Latvian and Lithuanian is “policija” and the Estonian is “politsei.” It would only make sense as a Latinized rendering of the Russian “politsia” — yet none of the country’s law enforcement agencies use that term.

Earlier reports about the Baltic hijacking said the attackers had left the Arctic Sea after 12 hours. The European Commission has indicated that the ship was attacked a second time off Portugal.

Because of these and other inconsistencies in the official account, speculation has been rife that the ship might be transporting something more valuable, perhaps even arms.

Serdyukov told President Dmitry Medvedev that the freighter was en route to Novorossiisk, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Calls to RETS Timber, the Finnish company that said it had sold the ship’s $1.8 million lumber cargo to Algerian customers, went unanswered Thursday.

Company CEO Kari Naumanen said Wednesday that the freighter would continue its journey to Algeria after repairs and receiving a new crew.

The eight suspected hijackers, four Estonians, two Russians and two Latvians, are being investigated for organized kidnapping, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, investigators said.

Estonia said Thursday that six of the hijackers were actually residents of the Baltic country and that most of them were known by police for various crimes.

Among the six are two Russian citizens, one Estonian citizen and three noncitizens, Estonian police said in a statement carried by Interfax.

Russia had so far not asked Estonia for any legal assistance in the case, the police said.