- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

MOSCOW | The Russian navy has arrested eight men accused of hijacking the Arctic Sea freighter near Sweden and forcing the crew to sail to West Africa - the latest twist in a puzzling maritime mystery.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Tuesday the suspected hijackers were detained by a Russian naval vessel that reached the Russian-crewed freighter Monday about 300 miles off Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean.

That is thousands of miles from the Algerian port where the ship was supposed to dock two weeks ago.

The suspected hijackers - citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Russia - were arrested without a shot being fired, state news agencies quoted Mr. Serdyukov as saying. The ship’s 15 Russian crew members were safe and were taken aboard by the navy for questioning.

The motive for seizing the aging freighter and its cargo of timber was not clear. Security and maritime experts said the Arctic Sea’s mysterious four-week journey pointed to something other than piracy, with some suggesting state involvement or a secret cargo, possibly of nuclear materials.

The Arctic Sea left the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on July 21. On July 30, Swedish police said the ship’s owner had reported that the crew claimed the vessel was boarded by masked men July 24 near the Swedish island of Gotland. The attackers reportedly had tied up the crew members, beat them, claimed they were looking for drugs, then sped off about 12 hours later in an inflatable craft.

Mr. Serdyukov said the hijackers boarded the freighter under the pretext that there was a problem with their inflatable craft. The hijackers, who were armed, then forced the crew to change course and turned off the Arctic Sea’s navigation equipment, he said.

By the time the report of the attack emerged, the ship had passed through the English Channel, where it made its last-known radio contact July 28. Signals from the ship’s tracking device were picked up off France’s coast late the next day, but that was the last-known trace of it until Monday.

The ship’s signal going dead coincided with news of the reported attack.

The disappearance of the 320-foot freighter has perplexed experts and officials across Europe.

“The whole thing has been sniffy from start to finish,” said David Osler, a maritime journalist at Lloyd’s List in London.

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht, said Tuesday he had spoken overnight with some of the Arctic Sea’s sailors and was more puzzled than ever.

Mr. Voitenko, whose company, Sovfracht, specializes in anti-piracy security consulting, said the hijacking was beyond the means of ordinary pirates.

“The operation cost more than the cargo and ship combined,” he said.

The 18-year-old freighter had a cargo of timber that Finnish wood supplier Rets Timber said was a $1.8 million sale to three Algerian companies.

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