Doubts cast on Russia's 'rescue' of Arctic Sea

Moscow's contradictions and evasions provoke speculation that 'hijacked' ship was carrying a secret cargo

The ship has been found, the crew has been saved, and the pirates have been arrested. But the mystery surrounding the Maltese-registered and Russian-crewed Arctic Sea is, if anything, deeper than ever.

The Russian navy arrested eight men yesterday for what may be the first case of piracy in European waters since the 17th century. The Russian Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, said that the group – citizens of Russia, Estonia and Latvia – had hijacked the ship off Sweden in July, and forced it to sail to Africa.

But experts have expressed doubt over Moscow's explanation. And last night the Malta Maritime Authority finally admitted what has been suspected for several days: that the ship "had never really disappeared".

"The movements of the Arctic Sea were always known for several days, notwithstanding reports that the ship had disappeared," Reuters quoted the Authority saying. "There was consensus among the investigating authorities... not to disclose any sensitive information [so as] not to jeopardise the life and safety of the persons on board and the integrity of the ship."

It was an "explanation" that left behind almost as many unanswered questions as before. The methods and motivations of the hijackers remain unclear, and rumours that the ship had a secret cargo persist.

The Arctic Sea departed from Finland with a cargo of timber on 21 July. Three days later, the crew were reportedly attacked in the Baltic by masked men masquerading as Swedish drugs police, speaking English with an accent, who tied them up, beat them and questioned them about drugs. It is allegedly these men who have been arrested for hijacking the ship, although it had earlier been reported that the men left the Arctic Sea after 12 hours on board. It is also unclear why Russian, Latvian and Estonian hijackers would speak to the Russian crew in English.

The last radio contact from the ship came on 28 July, after it passed through shipping lanes between Britain and France and sailed out into the Atlantic. The ship was due to arrive in the Algerian port of Bejaia on 4 August to unload its timber cargo worth just over £1m.

It never arrived. It wasn't until eight days later however, on 12 August, that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the military to take "all necessary measures" to search for the ship. After a series of strange and contradictory sightings and denials, it was announced on Monday afternoon that the Russian navy had rescued the ship 12 hours before. The Arctic Sea was 300 miles off Cape Verde, thousands of miles from its original destination.

So far there has been no inkling of who the hijackers are or what their motive may have been. Only their nationalities are known. Russian officials said questioning of the men was continuing aboard the Ladny, the Russian vessel that carried out the "rescue mission". Some analysts suggest that the disinformation admitted yesterday by the Maltese might be happening again now. Conspiracy theorists in Russia even speculate that Russian authorities knew all along where the ship – with a possible secret cargo – was located, and only had to "rescue" it and come up with a cover story when the world's attention became focused on the vessel.

One outstanding mystery is why, if the ship was hijacked on 24 July, none of the crew was able to get the word out before contact was lost a few days later. "The vessel had all the necessary modern means of communication and emergency alarms, and was located in waters where ordinary mobile telephones work," said Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian maritime journal Sovfrakht. "To hijack the vessel so that no one makes a peep – can you imagine how that could be? I can't."



Mr Voitenko is one of the few commentators who have provided a trickle of information about the ship. He and other Russian experts have aired suspicions that the 98-metre freighter was carrying an undeclared cargo and that high-level state interests were involved, but so far nobody has been able to provide details. Rumours have abounded of an illegal cargo of drugs, weapons, or even nuclear material.

What is known is that the Arctic Sea was docked for repairs in Kaliningrad before beginning its journey to Finland to pick up its cargo of timber. Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania which is the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet and a notorious black spot for smuggling.

Mr Voitenko said he would comment no further and posted an emotional statement on his website. "Thank God that it has all ended well. The crew is alive. I will say at once that I think it was right to draw attention to the situation surrounding the Arctic Sea," he wrote. "I can't say for certain, but nevertheless suspect that there was a serious risk of the crew dying without attention being brought to this unique case. I can't say anything about the roots of this story and I don't plan to dig further... I need to think about my own skin too. Understand that as you will."

Still unanswered: Questions about the Arctic Sea

Why did it take so long for the Russian authorities to respond?

Concerns had been raised in Finland and Sweden by 30 July about the ship. By 3 August the mystery of its hijacking in Swedish waters had been raised in Lloyd's List. It was almost another week before the Russian authorities announced they were sending warships to search for the cargo vessel.

Why did the crew tell Solchart, the company managing the vessel, that they had been hijacked but that the ordeal was over?

According to Solchart, the crew was back in control of the vessel after 12 hours and continuing to Algeria. Those communications brought the realisation that a hijacking had occurred. Piracy was, until the Arctic Sea, non-existent in European waters, so any report of such activity was bound to get public attention. It was believed to be the first hijacking in Swedish waters since the 17th century. The vessel passed through the English Channel.

Why did it take so long for the alarm to be raised?

It is thought to have been three days before Solchart was informed of the Swedish hijack – and in European waters an absence of contact for a day would cause concern. It was claimed that radio equipment had been damaged, but crew are thought to have had their own mobile telephones which should have worked while the ship was close to the Swedish coast.

Why, shortly after The Independent brought the disappearance to worldwide attention, did the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev order the navy to take "all necessary measures" to find the vessel?

The obvious answer is that the Kremlin wanted to do all it could to protect its nationals, the crew, but doubters suggest the President was worried about the fate of what the ship was carrying.

Was the ship carrying a secret cargo?

An illicit cargo might explain the hijackers' interest in the vessel – the officially listed cargo of timber worth £1m was regarded as a most unlikely target for an armed gang. Arms, drugs and nuclear equipment have all been suggested as likely secret cargos. It has also been suggested that the boat was seized in a commercial dispute.

Why did the hijackers wait so long before, reportedly, demanding a ransom?

It was only at the weekend that the first demands were said to have been made. It could be that an earlier ransom demand has been kept secret.

Were the eight men captured by the Russian warship the same who had carried out the hijack on 24 July?

It was suggested last week by the European Commission that the vessel was hijacked twice, once off Sweden and again off Portugal. Under normal circumstances this would be considered unlikely, but many of the circumstances surrounding the ship have resembled a fictional thriller in the past four weeks.

What did the hijackers say to the Swedish police?

The Swedish authorities are thought to have spoken to the hijackers at least twice, though not necessarily knowingly. On the first occasion, either using radio or the ship's satellite phone, they presumably thought they were speaking to a crew member and agreed because it was already beyond Swedish waters to wait to interview them on the vessel's planned return in August. The Swedish police communicated with the vessel last week but refused to divulge details of the conversation, or even to say if they considered the ship to be under control of pirates.

Lewis Smith

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