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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mystery Deepens Over Missing Cargo Ship

ReutersThe Maltese-registered Arctic Sea, pictured in an undated photo, has not been sighted since July 30, when it disappeared off the coast of France.

The mystery deepened over a missing Russian cargo ship Thursday after possible sightings off Gibraltar in the afternoon and in northern Spain a day earlier.

Analysts said the 4,000-ton Arctic Sea might have been hijacked, possibly in connection with a Russian commercial dispute.

The Maltese-flagged ship had a 15-member Russian crew when it set sail from Finland with $1.8 million in timber destined for Algeria. It was supposed to dock in the Algerian port of Bejaia on Aug. 4.

The Arctic Sea was last sighted on July 30 in the Bay of Biscay, off the western coast of France and north of Spain.

The Navy and Federal Security Service started looking for the missing ship earlier this month, but the search kicked into high gear Wednesday when President Dmitry Medvedev ordered Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to take all necessary measures to find and, if necessary, liberate the Arctic Sea.

The Ladny, the Navy frigate leading the Russian search, was chasing a ship resembling the Arctic Sea in the area of the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and North Africa, Mikhail Voitenko, an expert on piracy and the editor of the SovFracht Maritime Bulletin, wrote on his web site late Thursday afternoon, citing a Defense Ministry source.

The Defense Ministry later dismissed the report, and a Navy spokesman told Interfax that “the information is based on the personal opinions of non-official people and doesn’t correspond to reality.”

Voitenko said that despite the denials about his information, “I can say that I received it from a reliable source.”

The Defense Ministry said in a statement that the Ladny had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on Tuesday. Three large Russian warships, the Azov, Yamal and Novocherkassk, also sailed though the strait, Interfax reported.

Malta’s maritime authority, which is also looking for the ship, said Wednesday that the ship had made no attempt to enter the Strait of Gibraltar and therefore must have headed into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Defense Ministry is also using satellites to try to locate the ship.

Voitenko wrote on his web site around noon Thursday that he had received a message on his cell phone about the sighting of an “unknown” ship with the same length as the Arctic Sea — 98 meters — in the port of San Sebastian in northern Spain. He described this as “unverified information.”

For several hours, the information remained unconfirmed or denied. At around 3 p.m., an official in the Spanish Navy told Itar-Tass that the Arctic Sea had not entered Spanish waters or a Spanish port.

The ship was boarded by 10 armed and masked men who identified themselves as Swedish police officers on July 24, just a day after it sailed from Finland. The men tied up and assaulted the crew before carrying out what they called a search for illegal drugs on the vessel. Swedish police have denied any connection to the attackers, who left on an inflatable boat after 12 hours.

The Arctic Sea’s last official communication was with British coast guards on July 28.

Observers said the ship had probably been hijacked but stressed that the area was not known for pirate attacks.

Swedish police are investigating whether the ship’s disappearance might be the result of a dispute between the ship’s owner and another party, the BBC reported Thursday.

“The longer it goes on, the more it looks like some sort of dispute between Russian interests,” David Osler, who writes on maritime safety for the Lloyds List newspaper, told the BBC.

The Arctic Sea is operated by Solchart Arkhangelsk Ltd., and Federal Security Service officials are staying at its offices in Arkhangelsk, Itar-Tass reported. All 15 crew members were hired in Arkhangelsk, the report said.

Solchart CEO Viktor Matveyev declined to comment when reached by telephone in Finland on Thursday.

Nikolai Karpenkov, the head of the company’s Arkhangelsk branch, told Itar-Tass that he was glad that top Russian officials had gotten involved in the search.

Karpenkov rejected speculation that the ship might have been carrying a “secret cargo” from Kaliningrad, a drug-trafficking hub where it underwent two weeks of repairs before sailing for Finland for the timber shipment. Karpenkov said customs officials had checked the ship in Kaliningrad and Finland and found nothing suspicious or illegal.

Moscow is “extremely concerned about the fate of the crew of this ship, which is largely made up of Russian citizens,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov told Interfax on Thursday.

It was not possible to immediately reconcile his comments with reports that all 15 crew members are Russian.

The Foreign Ministry is “doing everything possible to clear up the situation and resolve problems” and is working with all the “interested countries” through diplomatic channels, Lyakin-Frolov said.

The relatives of the crew members on Wednesday published an open letter to the Russian government asking it to start a full-scale search and rescue operation and to ask Western European countries to participate.

The unsigned letter was first published on SovFracht Maritime Bulletin on Tuesday, but Voitenko said that the crew members’ relatives were no longer communicating with him.