Mystery of 'hijacked' cargo ship deepens

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One of the most mysterious sagas in modern maritime history finally ended yesterday, after a cargo ship which went missing almost three weeks ago after allegedly being hijacked by pirates was found by the Russian navy with its crew "alive and well".

The Arctic Sea was recovered about 300 miles from the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa and last night the 15 members of its Russian crew were being questioned aboard a naval vessel.

Russia's Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov confirmed yesterday that the 4,000-tonne ship, which was carrying almost £1m of sawn timber, had been found, but gave no details about how or why it had disappeared.

"Today at 1am Moscow time, the ship was found 300 miles off the Cape Verde islands," he said. "The crew have been transferred to our anti-submarine ship, the Ladny, where they are being questioned to clarify all the circumstances of the disappearance. The crew are all alive and well."

Mr Serdyukov said the crew had not been under armed control when the ship was found but did not indicate whether they had ever been held against their will. He hinted that more details were likely to emerge imminently.

"I think that in the next couple of hours we will be able to say in more detail what happened to them, why contact with them was lost, why [the ship] changed its course and all other details," he said last night.

On Saturday, it emerged that a multinational investigation into the ship's whereabouts had been launched after reports that a ransom demand of up to £1m had been made to its Finnish owners, Solchart Management.

The Arctic Sea 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. However, a spokesman for the EU Commission said the incidents had "nothing in common with traditional piracy or armed robbery at sea", prompting speculation that the crew were engaged in foul play or that they had been transporting a secret – and much more valuable – cargo. Last week, President Medvedev ordered the Russian military to take "all necessary measures" to find the freighter.

The 320ft ship set sail from Finland on 23 July and was due to arrive in Bejaia, northern Algeria, on 4 August. Swedish police, who spoke to the crew, said 10 armed men posing as anti-drugs police boarded the vessel on 24 July and searched it from top to bottom. Some 12 hours later, the intruders apparently left on a fast inflatable boat, allowing it to continue its passage.

The ship later passed through the English Channel, where British coastguards made contact and found nothing amiss. But on 11 August, Interpol said they suspected that pirates could have been in control during this passage. It is still unknown what became of the ship following its last official recorded position off northern France on 30 July.

Timeline: Arctic Sea

*23 July Sets sail from Finland



*24 July Crew report that masked men boarded and tied them up for 12 hours



*28 July Ship makes contact with British coastguards



*30 July Sighted in the Bay of Biscay



*15 August Police in Finland say a ransom demand has been made, but are unsure of its authenticity



*17 August Found near the Cape Verde islands

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