Europe

Russian Navy Joins Hunt for Missing Ship


Pirates have long troubled shipping off the coasts of Somalia, but a missing Maltese-flagged ship has raised concerns that piracy may have spread to EU waters.

The saga of M/S Arctic Sea already involves a number of EU countries from Finland in the north to Portugal in the west and Malta in the south, with Russia now also joining the club.

The ship was allegedly hijacked in Swedish waters on 24 July and later disappeared from radars in one of the world's busiest waterways with no alarm being raised.

The 98-metre-long cargo ship set off from Jakobstad in Finland on 23 July, carrying timber, and was due to arrive at the Algerian port of Bejaia on 4 August.

The vessel is registered in Malta, under the name of a Russian-owned company called Arctic Sea. Its operations are handled by the Russian company Solchart, which has an address in Arkhangelsk, Russia.

Apparently fearful about contacting the Swedish police, the 15-man strong mainly Russian crew had contacted the ships' security manager, saying the ship had been hijacked while going through Swedish waters between Oland and Gotland.

This is how it ended up being the Russian embassy in Stockholm informing Swedish police on 28 July, five days after the alleged hijacking.

A rubber boat with the word "Polis" painted on the side had approached the Arctic Sea at about 3am local time on 24 July, the Swedish authorities were told.

Some 10 masked men boarded the ship, clubbed and tied up the night watchman and an engineer who were on night shift. The hijackers claimed to be drug police and spoke English with an accent. They damaged the ship's communications equipment, beat up the crew members and collected their mobile phones before searching the ship. After 12 hours, they left.

Normally a ship with a broken radio system would head for a nearby harbour for repair but the Arctic Sea instead continued on its journey towards Africa where it was to deliver a cargo of 6,700 cubic metres of sawn timber from the Finnish company Stora Enso.

It was last recorded on the AIS live ship tracking system off the coast of Brest, northern France, just before 1.30am on 30 July.

When the Dover coastguard was informed by Interpol on 3 August that the crew had been hijacked in the Baltic Sea and told to be on alert when it passed through the Channel, it was already too late. The Arctic Sea had already completed its voyage through the Strait of Dover.

Questions are currently being asked whether the wood was the real target of the hijacking, or some other cargo was on board.

A month before the hijacking, on 24 June, the ship was repaired at the Pregol shipyard in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave located between Poland and Lithuania, and known for smuggling.

Another question is why it took Interpol over a week to raise the alert.

"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," said Mark Dickinson, general secretary of maritime consultancy firm Nautilus International, told The Telegraph.

On Wednesday (12 August) it was announced that Russia is also getting involved in the affair. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev ordered naval ships and two nuclear submarines to help locate the ship in the Atlantic.

The order came after the owner of the lost vessel requested Russian assistance to trace the ship. The relatives of the missing crew have also called on Russian authorities to help search for their loved ones.

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