HELSINKI (Reuters) -- A ransom demand has been made for the lost merchant ship "Arctic Sea," Finnish media said on August 15, but the whereabouts of the vessel were still unknown in a saga looking increasingly like the plot of a spy thriller.
The report was the latest fragment of information to surface about the missing ship and its 15-member Russian crew, which has been cloaked in mystery since failing to deliver a $1.3-million cargo of timber to the Algerian port of Bejaia on August 4.
"I don't sleep. I don't eat. I have been working 24 hours a day," said Viktor Matveyev, director of Solchart, the Finland-based operator of the vessel. "We hope that the crew is alive," he told Reuters.
The vanishing of the Maltese-registered vessel and its crew has unsettled authorities in Europe and North Africa and explanations for its disappearance have included piracy, foul play or a secret cargo.
Moscow sent warships to find it and a Russian report said on August 15 the ship was briefly identified off France's coast. Other reports have put it off Cape Verde.
Mikhail Boytenko, editor of Russia's respected "Sovfrakht" maritime journal, has said the ship may have been carrying a secret cargo unknown to the vessel's owners or operators.
"I don't think that it was pirates who took this vessel but it really smells of some sort of state involvement. This is real cloak and dagger stuff, like a le Carre novel," he told Reuters.
The Finnish news agency STT cited the National Bureau of Investigation (KRP) as saying a ransom demand had been made to Solchart but the KRP did not say who made the demand, how much it was for, or when it was delivered.
No one at the bureau was available for comment.
Solchart's Matveyev declined to comment on any ransom demand and said his main focus was on trying to find the "Arctic Sea," which the firm last had contact with off Portugal on August 1.
A wave of piracy has hit shipping off Somalia, and an international naval force patrols its coast in an effort to protect merchant vessels. But a hijacking in European waters would be almost unprecedented in modern times.
Russia's "Sovfrakht" magazine said the "Arctic Sea's" automatic identification system briefly came online and sent a signal at 0830 GMT on August 15 before falling silent again, and the vessel was currently in the Bay of Biscay.
French navy spokesman Jerome Baroe said he had heard about the report, but French authorities had no information to back it up. He added that the French believed the ship was still probably in the southern Atlantic heading towards Brazil.
"We still think it is off Cape Verde, but can't guarantee it 100 percent. If it is the same boat then it has been partly disguised, which would not be a surprise if it had been hijacked," he said.
"We have not flown over it, the Portuguese did. According to our information, this boat is not heading our way but is still off Cape Verde and heading in the direction of Brazil."
But, adding to the confusion that has swirled around the ship, a Russian envoy said on August 14 that reports the 4,000-ton, 98-meter bulk carrier was off Cape Verde were untrue.
Malta's Maritime Authority said an international criminal investigation was under way into the disappearance, focusing on alleged aggravated extortion and hijacking.
"The Finnish, Swedish and Maltese authorities are conducting investigations in close cooperation into the alleged offences relating to the cargo vessel," the MMA said. It said more than 20 countries as well as Interpol and Europol had contributed to the investigation.