The cargo ship that disappeared is spotted off West African coast

Russians send frigate to investigate after claims that pirates seized vessel

A cargo ship that went missing a fortnight ago amid fears it had been hijacked has been spotted off West Africa. An official from the French Defence Ministry said the ship had been seen in the Atlantic Ocean about 500 miles north-west of the Cape Verde islands, outside territorial waters.

"Cape Verde coastguards said they have located the boat," said Captain Jerome Baroe of the ministry. Two military officials in Brussels, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the vessel had been located.

The Russian navy immediately dispatched a frigate to search the waters around the former Portuguese colony, which lies more than 300 miles west of the Senegalese coast.

The Arctic Sea, a 3,998-tonne Maltese-registered freighter with a £1m cargo of sawn timber, left Finland bound for Algeria after a two-week refit in Kaliningrad, an enclave known to harbour organised crime gangs.

She went missing after passing through the English Channel at the end of July. Some reports claim she was also carrying a secret cargo. There have been fears that Russian gangs have been shipping illicit arms to Africa.

Mystery has surrounded the Arctic Sea since it was stopped and boarded on 24 July in the Baltic Sea off the Swedish coast. At least eight heavily armed and masked men were said to have taken control and tied up the crew, beating some of them, while they searched the vessel for 12 hours.

The crew claimed they were questioned about drug-trafficking before the raiders left in a high-speed inflatable boat. According to radio messages sent to the Russo-Finnish shipping line managing the vessel, the crew were released and the ship then continued its voyage.

But the disappearance raised fears that the crew had remained under the hijackers' control as they sailed into the Atlantic, making it the first ship in living memory to be sailed along the Channel by pirates.

The disappearance also led to suggestions that she had been seized as part of a commercial spat or was transporting illicit cargo, such as drugs or arms. But amid an absence of solid evidence, its whereabouts and the reason for its disappearance remain uncertain; even officials gave conflicting accounts.

Now Martin Selmayr, a spokesman for the European Commission, has suggested that the ship and its 15-strong Russian crew may have come under attack a second time.

"Radio calls were apparently received from the ship, which had supposedly been under attack twice, the first time off the Swedish coast and then off the Portuguese coast," he said. But he refused to go into details, and the Portuguese authorities denied the vessel had ever entered its waters.

A Nato spokesman, Commander Chris Davies, at the organisation's maritime headquarters in England, said they were monitoring the situation but were not directly involved in the search.

NATO began watching developments after the ship reported coming under attack in the Baltic Sea because it was an unusual situation, he said.

Viktor Matveyev, the managing director of Helsinki-based Oy Solchart Management AB, which operates the ship, remained in the dark yesterday. "We're unaware of any report that the ship has been located," he said.