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Russia Charges Eight With Kidnapping, Piracy Over Ship Hijacking

Russian officials and rescuers with crew members of the Arctic Sea
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has brought charges of kidnapping and piracy against eight men who prosecutors say masqueraded as police to hijack a cargo ship off Sweden.

The Maltese-registered Arctic Sea, officially carrying timber to Algeria, was seized on July 24 and its whereabouts were a mystery for weeks until Russian warships intercepted it off Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean.

The eight suspects -- citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Russia -- are being held in Moscow's high security Lefortovo prison.

Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Russian Prosecutor General's Investigative Committee, said they had acted as an organized group with criminal intent to hijack the Arctic Sea and its cargo.

"Performing their distributed roles under their plan, having selected arms to suppress the crew's resistance and having prepared black masks and clothes with 'police' signs, the accused assaulted and seized the Maltese-registered vessel with a Russian crew," Markin said.

The crew members had been isolated and put in separate cabins. Some were injured, he said, without elaborating.

The ship had been hijacked on the open sea and beyond jurisdiction of any state.

One of the eight accused is charged with organizing the crime and the rest with accessory to it.

The saga of the Arctic Sea caused concern across Europe after media reported the ship may have been smuggling arms or even nuclear material to the Middle East.

Contact with the 97 meter ship was lost after it sailed through the English Channel in late July, though maritime authorities said later that the vessel was being tracked by several nations as it made its way towards Cape Verde.

Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, said in an interview on August 26 he could not rule out the ship "might have been carrying not only timber."

Adding further intrigue, Russian chief of general staff Nikolai Makarov said the ship would be searched for possible secret cargo when it returns to Russia next month.

It is unclear when the eight accused would be tried.