Friday, 21 August 2009

The strange case of the ‘Arctic Sea’ hijack

The tale of the ‘Arctic Sea’ gets curiouser and curiouser. The missing Russian cargo ship was reportedly sighted last weekend off the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic. However, confusion still reigns, with the Russian ambassador to the islands having denying similar reports earlier. In addition, at the time of writing this report, the Arctic Sea’s managers say that they are "unaware of any report that the ship has been located".

The last known contact with the Arctic Sea was in the end of July. The ship had left the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on July 23 en route to the Algerian port of Bejaia with a cargo of 6500 tonnes of sawn timber. Owned by Solchart Management AB owned and Maltese registered, the ship reported trouble on July 24, saying that up to a dozen masked and armed men claiming to be police officers boarded the vessel at about 3 a.m. and tied and assaulted the 15 member crew. "The members of the crew were allegedly assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded and some of them were seriously injured," the Maltese maritime authority had said in a written statement at the time. The crew reported that the attackers left the Arctic Sea in an inflatable lifeboat after many hours.

During the hijack, the ship was seen to be performing ‘extreme manoeuvres’, according to a spokeswoman for the Swedish police. The managers reported the hijack to police in Helsinki, Finland, on July 28; the same day, the ship made a routine VTIS report to the Dover Coast Guard as it passed through the English Channel, but did not mention anything unusual. Crew members last spoke to Swedish police on August 31 when Swedish authorities called the ship and spoke to someone they think was the Captain. The ship, believed off the French Coast at the time, then seems to have then vanished until she was sighted by a spotter plane off Portugal. Interestingly, European Union officials say that a second attack on the ‘Arctic Sea’ was reported off the Portuguese coast, giving rise to speculation that this was carried out by stowaways who had remained on board after the first attack.

Meanwhile, Russian naval vessels ‘authorised to use force’ were hunting the Arctic Sea headed by its patrol ship ‘Ladny’. The Maltese Maritime Authority revealed later that the ship was headed towards the Atlantic. It was also revealed that NATO was monitoring the ship’s movements.
In fact, the Russian news agency Itar Tass reports that the original tip off giving the Arctic Sea's location came from NATO. In the end, five Russian naval vessels, including frigates and nuclear submarines were reportedly sent off Cabo Verde to intercept the vessel.

The full story may well be known by the time Marex goes to print. Speculation is rife in marine circles, however, that the ship may have been hijacked by drug or arms smugglers, as Cabo Verde is a key transit point for cocaine trafficking from Latin America. Some say that the crew could well have a hand in the disappearance of the ship, given that the incident happened in the well monitored waters of Europe.

Ingemar Isaksoo, a Swedish police investigator, told a news agency: “This is the first time I have heard about something like this happening in Swedish waters.” A spokesperson for the Swedish Coast Guard echoed this sentiment, saying that the last known hijacking of a vessel in Swedish waters occurred in the 16th century.

Just before going to press, we have learnt that the Russian's now say that the Arctic sea has been retaken. According to the Russian Defence Minister, eight people of Estonian, Latvian and Russian nationality were arrested during the operation to liberate the Arctic Sea. Investigations revealed that on July 24, 2009, these people boarded the Arctic Sea and using the threat of arms and demanded that the crew change course. The Arctic Sea then sailed on to an African route indicated by the aggressors and turned off its navigation equipment.

Mr Serdyukov reported on the measures taken in accordance with the President's instructions concerning the disappearance of the Arctic Sea and the Russian crew on board. Earlier on during the meeting, Mr Serdyukov reported to President Medvedev that the crew of the Arctic Sea has been released.

One has a feeling that this mystery has still a long way to go before all is revealed.

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