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Piracy feared as mystery of missing ship deepens

WORLD
By | August 14th 2009

MOSCOW, Aug 13

Pirates have probably hijacked a merchant ship which disappeared after sailing through the English Channel last month, its operator said on Wednesday.

The Kremlin has ordered Russian warships to join the hunt for the 4,000-tonne, 98-metre bulk carrier Arctic Sea, whose mysterious fate has baffled national maritime authorities across Europe and North Africa.

The Maltese-registered vessel, carrying a cargo of timber worth $1.3 million, was supposed to have docked on Aug. 4 in the Algerian port of Bejaia.

It never arrived, raising fears of a rare case of piracy in northern European seas.

"My view is that it is most likely that the vessel has been hijacked," Viktor Matveyev, director of the Finnish company Solchart, which operates the vessel, told Reuters. "It is unclear where the vessel is now.

A wave of piracy has hit shipping off Somalia, and an international naval force patrols its coast in an effort to protect merchant vessels. But a hijacking in European waters would be almost unprecedented in modern times.

"If this is piracy, and it seems most likely of all that it is, then it is one of the first cases in recent history of piracy in these seas," said Matveyev.

Concerns over the safety of the 15-member Russian crew were raised after the Malta Maritime Authority said it received reports the ship had been boarded by armed men in masks posing as anti-drugs police in Swedish waters on July 24.

Crew members were assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded and some were seriously hurt, Malta said. Swedish authorities said none of its law enforcement agencies had been involved.

Ghost ship?

"We have no details about the crew though we of course hope that everything is okay with them," said Matveyev. "We very much hope the crew is well and healthy."

Last radio contact with the Arctic Sea was on July 28 from the Dover Strait between Britain and France. Shortly afterwards an electronic signal showing its location was turned off.

Russian maritime journal Sovfracht reported on Thursday that a ship similar to the Arctic Sea had docked in the Spanish port of San Sebastian but the city, a popular seaside resort, only has a marina for small pleasure craft.

The port authority for the closest commercial port, Pasajes, said no such ship has docked.

Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB, was helping to investigate the mystery and its agents were at the offices of Solchart Arkhangelsk, which is listed as the ship's owner, Russian media reported.

Relatives of the crew appealed to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in an open letter and demanded a criminal investigation into the vessel's disappearance, Russian media reported, but have now stopped speaking publicly about the case.

Kari Naumanen, CEO of RETS Timber, which sold the cargo from the Finnish side, said ships simply did not go missing in European waters.

"We've never had one ship missing, even for a day," he said. "It's very difficult to understand a situation like this ... unless it was a hijack situation. It's hard to believe the crew would be doing this, so it must be someone else."

(Reuters)

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