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August 13, 2009

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Russian navy joins cargo ship hunt

RUSSIAN warships joined an international search yesterday for a 4,000-tonne cargo ship that disappeared off the coast of France two weeks ago, leading to speculation it may have been hijacked.

The Maltese-flagged bulk carrier Arctic Sea, with a 15-strong Russian crew, failed to arrive at the Algerian port of Bejaia on August 4.

"Under the orders of President Dmitry Medvedev, all Russian navy ships in the Atlantic have been sent to join the search for the Arctic Sea," news agency Itar Tass quoted navy commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky as saying.

Britain's Maritime and Coastguard Agency said the Arctic Sea last made radio contact with maritime officials on July 28 before entering the Dover Strait between Britain and France.

The Malta Maritime Authority said it received reports it was boarded by men posing as police in Swedish waters on July 24.

The vessel was boarded by "eight to 12 persons allegedly masked and wearing uniforms bearing the word 'police' and armed with guns and pistols," the Maltese authority said.

"During their stay on board, members of the crew were allegedly assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded and some were seriously injured," it said, adding the crew were questioned about drug trafficking by those posing as police.

It said Swedish authorities yesterday told Maltese officials none of its law enforcement agencies were involved in the incident.

The ship, chartered by a Finnish company and carrying timber, began its voyage at the Finnish port of Pietarsaari. After passing through the Dover Strait its transponder, which gives its position, appears to have been switched off and only visual sightings have been made since.

The vessel's movements were last recorded on the AisLive ship tracking system off the coast of Brest, northern France, on July 30, although there are reports it was spotted off the coast of Portugal recently.

Cyrus Mody, at London-based watchdog the International Maritime Bureau, said: "The vessel could have illegally deviated, it could have been hijacked and pirates are taking it to another location or maybe it is being used as a phantom ship, where its identity is changed."

Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, managing director of Dryad Maritime, an intelligence company specializing in piracy, said: "It is more likely that it would be an organized criminal gang that has chosen to target that vessel for a specific purpose."

John Dalby, chief executive of MRM, which provides security personnel to merchant vessels, believed the ship was hijacked to gauge maritime security.

"It was purely a dress rehearsal. This was an incursion designed to see what could be got away with to test the authorities' reactions," he said.

Other experts cast doubt on whether the ship had been seized.

UK Chamber of Shipping's director of communications Jeremy Harrison said of possible piracy: "This is speculation running wild. Why would you attack and seize a small-to-medium sized cargo ship carrying wood of all things?"


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