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Russia arrests 8 suspects in Arctic Sea hijacking

Russia's navy arrested eight men accused of hijacking the Arctic Sea freighter near Sweden and forcing the crew to sail to West Africa, the defence minister said today.

Anatoly Serdyukov said the suspected hijackers were detained by the naval vessel that found the Russian-crewed freighter yesterday off Cape Verde, thousands of miles from the Algerian port where it was supposed to dock two weeks ago.

Serdyukov spoke to reporters at an air show outside Moscow.

He told President Dmitry Medvedev earlier today that the suspected hijackers — citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Russia — were arrested without a shot being fired, state news agencies said.

There was still no information on why they allegedly seized the Arctic Sea, an 18-year-old ship with a cargo of timber worth only €1.3m (£1.1m).

The 15 crew members were safe and had been taken aboard the Russian naval vessel for questioning, Serdyukov said.

The Arctic Sea sailed from the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on 21 July. On 30 July, Swedish police said the ship's owner had reported that the crew claimed the vessel was boarded by masked men on 24 July near the Swedish island of Gotland. The invaders reportedly had tied up the crew, beat them, claimed they were looking for drugs, then sped off about 12 hours later in an inflatable craft.

Serdyukov reportedly said the hijackers boarded the freighter under the pretext that there was a problem with their inflatable craft. The hijackers, who were armed, then forced the crew to change course and turned off the Arctic Sea's navigation equipment, he was quoted as saying.

By the time the Swedish report of the attack had emerged, the ship had already passed through the English Channel, where it made its last known radio contact on 28 July. Signals from the ship's tracking device were picked up off France's coast the next day, but that was the last known trace of it until yesterday.

Serdyukov said the ship were found about 300 miles away from the island nation of Cape Verde.

The disappearance of the 98-metre freighter perplexed experts and officials across Europe, with speculation about what happened ranging from its being seized by pirates to involvement in a murky commercial dispute.