x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Missing cargo ship found off Cape Verde

The ship, found hundreds of kilometres off the coast of western Africa, vanished in July while transporting timber from Finland to Algeria.

MOSCOW // Russia said yesterday that a ship that mysteriously disappeared last month in the Atlantic has been located several hundred kilometres off the coast of west Africa and that the 15 Russian sailors have been transferred to a Russian navy frigate for questioning.

The Russian defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, told the President, Dmitry Medvedev, that the Russian navy discovered the missing vessel, the Arctic Sea, 555km off Cape Verde at around 1am Moscow time. "The crew is intact, all are alive and well," Mr Serdyukov told the Russian president yesterday in comments broadcast on the state-run Channel One television. "They are being questioned." The crew was not in any danger from armed individuals when they were discovered by the navy, Mr Serdyukov said.

"Over the next few hours we will be able to clear up what happened to it and why the ship did not make contact and changed its course," he added. The announcement follows an announcement by Finnish police over the weekend that a ransom demand had been made for the ship for an undisclosed sum. It also ends weeks of speculation about the whereabouts of the Arctic Sea, which was sailing under the Maltese flag when it disappeared under suspicious circumstances in July while transporting a US$1.8 million (Dh6.6m) load of wood from Finland to Algeria.

There had been numerous reports of unconfirmed sightings of the ship, but the last confirmed sighting - before yesterday's announcement - was on July 30 in the Bay of Biscay, off France's western coast, after which radio contact with the vessel was lost. The ship left Finland on July 22 and was scheduled to arrive with the timber in the Algerian port of Bejaia on August 4. But a high seas drama reportedly unfolded just two days after its departure when a group of armed men posing as Swedish drug police purportedly approached the ship in a black rubber boat and boarded the Arctic Sea, tying up the crew before leaving on the rubber boat several hours later.

Swedish police said they managed to contact the Arctic Sea crew after the alleged hijacking by the police impostors but that they had been unable to confirm that the attack took place. The Swedish police spokeswoman Maria Lonegard told CNN over the weekend that witnesses saw the Arctic Sea making bizarre movements at the time of the purported attack, but that none had seen the black boat. Ms Lonegard also told CNN that the Arctic Sea appeared to have been attacked twice. "It appears that we are now dealing with two separate incidents - the alleged hijacking off the Swedish coast and now the alleged hijacking with a demand for ransom," she told CNN in an interview on Saturday.

Russian officials in recent days had reassured the public that progress was being made in locating the ship, in what appeared to be an attempt to stem a wave of speculation and conspiracy theories surrounding the Arctic Sea. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to Nato, said over the weekend that Russia was receiving informational support from the alliance but that Russia had the situation "under control".

"No other support is needed," Mr Rogozin said in televised comments. He said the official reticence about the status of the ship was imperative to ensuring the "life, safety and health" of the Russian sailors aboard the vessel. A Nato official reached by telephone in Brussels yesterday confirmed that the alliance was in touch with Russia about the ship but said he could reveal no details due to "operational reasons".

Mikhail Voitenko, an expert on piracy and editor of the SovFracht Maritime Bulletin, said it was unlikely that the Arctic Sea's enigmatic journey was related to piracy or terrorism. "It was clearly a special operation carried out by someone, but one can only speculate about who and why," Mr Voitenko said. Another maritime security expert said on condition of anonymity that the case could be related to organised crime or commercial disputes.

"Someone may have tried a more hands-on approach" rather than trying to enforce a contract in a Russian court, the expert said. The ship is operated by the Helsinki-based company Solchart Management and is owned by the Maltese company Arctic Sea Ltd, the state-run Itar-Tass news agency reported. The managing director of Solchart, Viktor Matveyev, could not be reached for comment yesterday evening.

cschreck@thenational.ae