Mystery ship suspects charged with piracy and kidnapping

Russia had tracked ship all along, amid tales of a secret cargo of arms or drugs
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The Independent Online

Russia charged eight men with piracy and kidnapping yesterday over the hijacking of the Arctic Sea, the ship with a 15-man Russian crew that disappeared en route to Algeria several weeks ago.

The 7,000-tonne freighter, carrying timber worth £800,000 from Finland, was apprehended off Africa on 17 August. But in the days since she was "found" by the Russian anti-submarine ship Ladny, mystery surrounding the story has only increased, with each statement by Russian officials muddying the waters further.

Seven of the men are charged with piracy and kidnap, and the eighth is charged with organising the crime that started in the Baltic, two days after the vessel set sail. They are said to be two Russians, one Latvian, one Estonian and four stateless persons.

Vladimir Markin, of Russia's Investigative Committee, said: "Having got together weapons, masks and black clothes with 'Police' written on them, as well as a small boat, on the night of 24 July in open, international waters, the accused attacked and hijacked the Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea, which was carrying a cargo of timber."

Russian investigators say the men claimed to be part of an ecological organisation, although they were unable to name it. So far, there has been no explanation of why they had such a flimsy cover story, what they were demanding and why they gave themselves up without a fight or threats. Some maritime security experts suspect the men had not been on the ship at all, but were part of an elaborate cover-up. In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that when the ship was stopped, her captain claimed she was a North Korean vessel Chongdin 2, carrying timber from Cuba to Sierra Leone, but investigation showed the real Chongdin 2 was docked in Angola.

The ministry statement said it was still unclear if the "initial hijacking" of the vessel on 24 July was related to later events. Earlier reports suggested that men did board the ship dressed in black police outfits, but spoke to the crew in English, not Russian. After tying them, beating them and interrogating them, ostensibly about drugs, they left the vessel several hours later. The ,inistry, in something of an understatement, admitted there were still some "grey spots" in the story.

It was also stated officially by the Russians for the first time that the ship had never really been "lost" and that her course was tracked continuously. This appears to validate statements from Maltese authorities and elsewhere that the boat was being traced throughout the duration of its bizarre voyage that ended 300 miles off the Cape Verde Islands.

A further twist came when a family near the Russian city of Kursk said they recognised a long-lost nephew in television pictures of the pirates being arrested. The family were certain that the man identified as Andrei Lunev on Russian television was the man of the same name who disappeared in a fishing accident of Russia's far-eastern Kamchatka peninsula three years ago and was presumed dead. Comments to the media from the Russian crew have been minimal.

Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia's Investigative Committee, has admitted for the first time that the Arctic Sea may have had a secret cargo on board other than the stated load of timber. Authorities claim that an initial search of the ship revealed nothing untoward, but the ship is headed to the Black Sea port of Novorossisk for a thorough inspection. Before loading the timber, the Arctic Sea had being undergoing repairs in Kaliningrad, a notorious hotspot for organised crime, drugs and arms-smuggling.

This will do nothing to please the conspiracy theorists, who claim that the reason that the Russian Navy put so much effort into tracking down a ship with such an ostensibly low-value cargo suggests they were aware all along that it contained an important and sensitive secret cargo.