Ships 2

Arctic Sea

Ships 3


Mystery Of The “Hijacked” Arctic Sea

By James Donahue

Among the strangest stories of the open sea this year has been the disappearance in July of the Russian-manned cargo ship Arctic Sea while carrying $1.8 million in timber from Finland to Algeria. Stories of a hijacking abounded before the vessel went missing. And that sparked a massive search by the Russian Navy.

On Aug. 17, the Russians announced that the ship was found off the Cape Verde Islands and that all 15 crew members were alive and well. Also on board were eight alleged hijackers, all of them ethnic Russians, who were arrested.

There were reports from Swedish and Maltese authorities that a ransom had been demanded, and the security chief of a Russian insurance agency told a newspaper that the demand was $1.5 rubles.

So far this story appeared relatively simple. The vessel was boarded by a band of Russian hijackers, the first incident of attempted piracy in European waters in well over a century, but it was successfully thwarted by the Russian Navy.

Then the solidity of the story began to unravel. Both the hijackers and the ship’s crew were detained and flown back to Russia for questioning. The so-called hijackers were later released. The ship and its cargo were towed back to Russia. And rumors began appearing on various Internet sites and even Time Magazine that the ship’s cargo may have contained something much more that timber.

One of the more pervasive stories was that the ship had been carrying arms and possible missiles destined for the Middle East, and that it had been intercepted by Israel. The Russians have denied this story, however.

The story by the alleged hijackers was that they were not attempting a crime. They claim they are environmentalists who ran out of fuel at sea and sought help from the first passing ship, which was the Arctic Sea.

Early reports, however, stated that when the ship was off Gotland, Sweden, it was boarded in the early hours of July 24 by eight English-speaking men who approached on an inflatable boat bearing the word “polis,” the Swedish word for “Police.” The ship’s owner said the captain told him the intruders claimed to be police officers who searched the ship and then left. Swedish authorities denied that anyone from its government was involved, however.

The eight men who boarded the ship did not leave the vessel. They were still on board when the Arctic Sea was boarded by Russian Naval authorities about a month later.

The story gets even stranger.

The Arctic Sea made radio contact with the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency while passing through the Strait of Dover on July 28, only four days later. The crew made no mention of trouble aboard ship. The vessel continued to send signals from its Automatic Identification System until July 30, then switched off somewhere off the coast of France. When the vessel failed to arrive at Bejaia on its scheduled time, and it failed to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar, a hijack alert was issued by Interpol on Aug. 3.

That was the point where the Russian Navy and Portugal authorities began searching for the lost freighter.

One report said the Russian Foreign Ministry revealed that when approached by the first Russian warship, the captain of the Arctic Sea attempted to disguise the identity of his command as a North Korean ship.

Also a lawyer representing one of the alleged hijackers said it was the captain of the Arctic Sea who prevented the “stranded environmentalists” from disembarking the ship and it was his decision to sail the vessel off course along the western coast of Africa.

What was his motivation? And why have Russian authorities placed a gag order on the crew members? It has been reported that they face up to seven years in prison if they tell the story of what was going on during those mystery weeks on the open sea.

Most recently, Russian journalist Mikhail Voitenko fled Russia to Istanbul, Turkey, and then to Bangkok, Thailand, after receiving threatening telephone calls about stories he wrote about the incident. His stories have questioned the official government story.

The Time Magazine story noted that the Russian Navy sent a relatively large armada of ships out to search for the Arctic Sea, including submarines. The writer asked other interesting questions like: “Why, with so many other ships carrying much more valuable cargo, would the hijackers target the Arctic Sea with its small load of lumber?”

The Time story also noted that Israeli President Shimon Peres paid a surprise visit to Russia a day after the ship was found.