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August 18, 2009

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Missing Russian ship and crew finally located

Russia's navy yesterday found a missing merchant ship in the Atlantic Ocean near the Cape Verde islands, ending a baffling saga.

The fate of the bulk carrier Arctic Sea and its 15-man Russian crew has been cloaked in mystery since it went missing in European waters two weeks ago, sparking speculation of foul play or even a secret cargo targeted by pirates or spies.

Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told President Dmitry Medvedev that the 4,000-tonne ship had been found off Cape Verde, and that the crew were safe after being taken aboard a navy ship.

He gave no details of how the vessel was found or why it disappeared, but promised to say more later.

"Today at 1am Moscow time, the ship was found 300 miles off the Cape Verde islands," Serdyukov told Medvedev during a presidential visit to the southern Russian city of Astrakhan.

"The crew have been transferred to our anti-submarine ship, the Ladny, where they are being questioned to clarify all the circumstances of the disappearance," he said. "The crew are all alive and well."

The Kremlin had ordered warships and submarines to scour the Atlantic for the Arctic Sea, whose last contact with its Finnish-based operator was on August 1 off Portugal.

The Maltese-registered vessel, carrying a US$1.3-million cargo of timber, was supposed to have docked on August 4 in the Algerian port of Bejaia but never arrived.

There were concerns for the crew after the Malta Maritime Authority said it had received reports that the ship had been boarded by armed men in masks posing as anti-drugs police in Swedish waters on July 24.

It said crew members had been assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded, and some seriously hurt.

Serdyukov did not say if the crew had been held against its will.


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