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Missing ship found with crew safe

A missing cargo ship believed to have sailed through the English Channel after being boarded by pirates was found with all its crew safe on board, it was reported today.

The Arctic Sea was found about 300 miles off the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa, Russian defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov said.

He said the ship's 15-man Russian crew was not under armed control when the ship was found and that they were taken aboard a Russian naval vessel.

No further details were given about what had happened to the ship since it went missing more than two weeks ago.

It emerged on Saturday that a multinational investigation had been launched into a ransom demand for the Maltese-flagged vessel.

The demand - said in unconfirmed reports on Russian television to be 1.5 million US dollars (£910,000) - was made to Finnish company Solchart Management, which owns the vessel.

Finnish, Swedish and Maltese authorities said they were investigating aggravated extortion and the alleged hijacking of the vessel, although it was not known whether the demand was legitimate.

The ship is believed to have come under attack twice - once as it sailed through the Baltic Sea, and a second time off the coast of Portugal - but an EU Commission spokesman said the incidents had "nothing in common with traditional piracy or armed robbery at sea".

The ship's disappearance left experts and maritime authorities baffled.

Last week there were unconfirmed sightings of the ship around 520 miles off the Cape Verde islands, while the vessel's tracking system was also reported to be broadcasting signals from the Bay of Biscay off France, although the French Navy dismissed this claim.

The 4,000-tonne vessel was meant to arrive in Bejaia in northern Algeria with its cargo of around £1 million-worth of sawn timber on August 4 but it remains unknown what became of it following its last official recorded position off northern France on July 30.

The ship's last known radio contact was with British coastguards when it made routine contact with Dover Coastguard as it was about to enter the Strait of Dover from the North Sea at 1.52pm on July 28.

Interpol later informed the British Coastguard that the ship had been hijacked days before in the Baltic Sea.

According to reports, it was boarded by up to 10 armed men purporting to be anti-drugs police on July 24.

Some 12 hours later, the intruders apparently left the ship on a high-speed inflatable boat and allowed the Arctic Sea to continue on its passage but with its communications equipment damaged.

By the time Interpol alerted Dover Coastguard about the apparent hijacking, the vessel had already passed through the English Channel, UK coastguards said.

Its last confirmed recording on the AISLive system off the coast of Brest, northern France, was just before 1.30am on July 30.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was reported to have ordered all Russian navy ships in the Atlantic to search for the missing ship.