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August 19, 2009

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Russian navy arrests eight in freighter hijacking

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.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said yesterday the suspected hijackers were detained by a Russian naval vessel that reached the Russian-crewed freighter on Monday about 480 kilometers off Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean. That is thousands of kilometers 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 Serdyukov as saying. The ship's 15 Russian crew members were taken aboard by the navy for questioning.

The motive for seizing the aging freighter and its cargo of timber remained unclear. 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 on July 24 near the Swedish island of Gotland. The attackers reportedly had tied up the crew, beat them, claimed they were looking for drugs, then sped off about 12 hours later in an inflatable craft.

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 was quoted as saying.

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


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