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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Navy Arrests 8 for Piracy on Mystery Ship

APVoitenko, pictured Tuesday, believes the ship saga involves state interests.
The Navy has seized eight hijackers from the missing cargo ship the Arctic Sea during a top-secret operation involving Russian and NATO forces, officials said Tuesday.

The detainees — four Estonians, two Lithuanians and two Russians — were captured “without a shot” on the ship off the West African coast, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said as he released the first details about the finding of the ship, which mysteriously disappeared late last month en route from Finland to Algeria.

“This was an act of piracy,” Serdyukov told reporters at the MAKS air show in the Moscow region.

But he offered no explanation about why the ship, which was ostensibly carrying a mere $1.8 million in timber, had been hijacked and why a covert operation had been launched to recover it.

The hijackers, who were armed, were being questioned Tuesday on the anti-submarine frigate Ladny, which had led the Russian search for the Arctic Sea, the Investigative Committee said.

Serdyukov said in a report to President Dmitry Medvedev that the eight approached the Arctic Sea on an inflatable boat and boarded on the pretext that there was a problem with the boat at about 11 p.m. on July 24, two days after it had left Finland.

The eight seized the 15-member crew from Arkhangelsk and the ship in Swedish waters near the Aland Islands, he said.

“The ship then moved on the route dictated by the hijackers toward Africa with its navigation equipment turned off,” Serdyukov said, according to a Kremlin statement.

On July 30, Swedish police said the ship’s owner had reported that the vessel was boarded by masked men near the Swedish island of Gotland on July 24. The police said the crew were beaten and tied up by the masked men, who carried on a search for drugs before leaving the ship.

Radio contact with the Arctic Sea was lost July 28, and the ship was last sighted on July 30 in the Bay of Biscay, off the western coast of France.

An unknown caller phoned the ship’s insurer on Aug. 3 and threatened to kill the crew and sink the vessel if a $1.5 million ransom was not paid, said a spokeswoman for the insurer, Renessans Strakhovaniye.

“The information wasn’t unveiled before because of security measures linked to the investigation,” the spokeswoman told The Moscow Times.

The caller had spoken in English, she said. Renessans Strakhovaniye insured the 4,000-ton vessel for $4 million.

The Maltese-flagged ship was supposed to have docked on Aug. 4 in the Algerian port of Bejaia.

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

NATO joined in the search for the ship, built in 1991, said Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to the Western military alliance.

“The situation was very serious,” Rogozin said Monday, Interfax reported.

A NATO official said Monday that the alliance had been “well-informed” about the operation, Interfax reported.

Rogozin said a media disinformation campaign had been conducted during the search so reporters would not be able “to calculate the true actions of the Russian forces.”

Maltese authorities said Tuesday that they had tracked the ship after it was reported missing. “There was consensus among the investigating authorities of Finland, Malta and Sweden 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 country’s security committee said in a statement.

In Moscow, the Investigative Committee said a group of investigators had flown straight to the Ladny to help interrogate the eight hijackers. It said it had opened an investigation on possible charges of kidnapping by a group of criminals. If charged and convicted, the eight face up to 20 years in prison.

The Arctic Sea’s crew was to fly back to Russia on Tuesday. The ship’s operator, Solchart Arkhangelsk, said a new crew had been formed to take over the vessel, Itar-Tass reported.

The ship’s disappearance and the high-level efforts to find it prompted speculation that it was carrying a secret freight besides the timber. Fueling rumors was the fact that the vessel was laid up for two weeks in a Kaliningrad shipyard before it sailed for Finland.

Mikhail Voitenko, a well-known investigator of piracy and editor of Sovfracht Maritime Bulletin, said many questions remained about the case.

“I’m afraid that there might be accusations against the crew. I’m absolutely sure that they are innocent,” Voitenko told reporters. “They just got involved in a saga with government interests.”

He said the cargo itself was not so important, “but someone didn’t want the ship to continue its course.”

Voitenko also said it looked like Russian and NATO officials had mutual interests in the case and that was why they had prevented any news leaks.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman declined to give more details about the incident.

The Estonian Foreign Ministry said it had not received any confirmation from Russia about detention of Estonian citizens in the case, Interfax said.

“It’s a unique saga. I don’t remember anything like it,” Voitenko said. “I don’t think we will ever learn what really happened.”