Russian President orders navy to hunt for missing 'piracy' ship Arctic Sea

An undated file picture sees container ship 'Arctic Sea'.
(DPA/Press Association)
The Arctic Sea: it had a Russian crew and £1m of timber on board
President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the Russian navy to join the hunt for a cargo ship which disappeared after passing through the English Channel.
Warships and nuclear submarines have have been told to “take all necessary measures to find and free” the ship and its 15-man Russian crew amid fears that it has been seized by pirates.
The mystery surrounding the Arctic Sea has deepened after further details emerged of the “missing” four days after the ship was reportedly raided by armed men off the Swedish coast.
There was speculation that the ship had been seized by the Russian Mafia as part of a dispute over arms or weapons smuggling
The ship, carrying a cargo of timber, made a routine call to Dover coastguard on July 28 saying it was preparing to enter the Channel’s busy shipping lanes.
Its location beacon appeared to show the 3,988-tonne ship sailing along the English south coast before the signal was lost about 50 miles off Penzance on July 30. It was due to dock in Algeria on August 3.
Swedish police said today that they had been in telephone contact with the crew on July 31, but refused to give any details.
Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian navy, told the state news agency Itar-Tass today: “Under the orders of President Dmitry Medvedev all Russian naval ships in the Atlantic have been sent to join the search for the Arctic Sea.”
Russia’s radar systems and satellites are also also searching for the ship amid unconfirmed reports that it was heading towards Africa.
A Defence Ministry spokesman told the RIA Novosti agency: “The main task lies with the patrol combatant vessel Ladnyy of the Black Sea Fleet, which passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on 12 August and is following the set course.”
The large amphibious warships Azov, Yamal and Novocherkassk were also reported to have entered the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar, suggesting that ships on a pre-arranged military exercise have now received a signal from Moscow to join the hunt for the Arctic Sea.
The cargo ship was loaded with £1.13million of timber at the Finnish port of Jacobstad on July 23. The following day the ship was allegedly boarded by a group of armed men claiming to be Swedish police searching for drugs in the Baltic Sea.
The crew said they had been tied up for 12 hours while the ship was searched, but the Swedish authorities have denied any knowledge of the operation.
Malta Maritime Authority officials said today that during the armed boarding, crew members were subjected to “hard” questioning related to drug trafficking, possibly pointing to a narcotics feud. “Members of the crew were allegedly assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded and some were seriously injured,” said a spokesman.
There was then a gap of four days before the the Maltese-flagged ship entered the Dover Strait. The delay has led to speculation that the ship’s crew could have been coerced into picking up an illicit cargo, such as weapons.
Before collecting its cargo of timber the ship had been repaired at the Pregol shipyard in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave notorious for smuggling.
A Portuguese coastal spotter aircraft is reported to have seen the Arctic Sea some distance of its coast at the 41st North degree of latitude on August 1.
Commander João Barbosa, a Portuguese Navy spokesman, said in a carefully worded statement: “We have been monitoring the situation and can confirm that this ship is not and never has been in the Portuguese jurisdiction.”
This suggests that the Arctic Sea was deliberately sailing well away from normal shipping channels to avoid entering waters where it could be challenged.
Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, managing director of Dryad Maritime, an intelligence company specialising in piracy, said that if the ship may have been the victim of a new kind of piracy.
“If this is a criminal act, it appears to be following a new business model. It seems likely that the vessel will head to the west coast of Africa,” he said.
Mark Dickinson, general secretary of seafarers’ union Nautilus International, said: “It is alarming that, in the 21st century, a ship can apparently be commandeered by hijackers and sail through the world’s busiest waterway with no alarm being raised and no naval vessel going to intercept it.
“It is unbelievable that a ship can sail around for more than a fortnight with no one seemingly knowing its precise location or who is in control.”
Nick Davis, chief executive of Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre, raised the prospect of a commercial dispute.
“It’s not carrying a valuable cargo, so I strongly suspect this is a commercial dispute with its owner and a third party and they have decided to take matters into their own hands,” he said.
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