At least five Russian warships, including a submarine, have joined the hunt for a cargo vessel that vanished two weeks ago after being hijacked.
The warships were drafted into the international maritime search for the Arctic Sea and its 15 Russian crew after the intervention of Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President. "Under the orders of President Dmitry Medvedev, all Russian navy ships in the Atlantic have been sent to join the search for the Arctic Sea," Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said. Anatoly Serdyukov, Russia's defence minister, has been told by Mr Medvedev to take "all necessary measures to detect, monitor and, if necessary, rescue" the ship.
The 3,998-tonne bulk carrier and its £1m cargo of timber went missing at the end of July after sailing through the English Channel on its way from Finland to Bejaia in Algeria. Four days earlier it had been hijacked off the coast of Sweden and members of the crew beaten by armed and masked men.
The Finnish-Russian shipping line controlling the Maltese-registered vessel later reported that the hijacking was over after 12 hours, but the ship's disappearance raised fears it may still have been under the control of pirates when it entered the Channel on 28 July.
British coastguards had no reason to suspect anything was wrong at the time. The last confirmed sighting was off the Portuguese coast but Swedish police revealed yesterday that they had a telephone conversation with the crew on 31 July, although they refused to divulge what was said.
The reasons for the hijacking and the subsequent disappearance have yet to be established and have mystified maritime experts.
Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of Russia's Sovfracht maritime bulletin, said the cause of the disppearance was likely to be linked to a secret cargo, such as arms or drugs, rather than timber. Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, managing director of Dryad Maritime, an intelligence company specialising in piracy, said: "It is likely that it would be an organised criminal gang that has chosen to target that vessel for a specific purpose."