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Russia Finds Mystery Merchant Ship, Crew Alive


The "Arctic Sea" has been missing for weeks
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia has arrested eight people who hijacked the merchant ship "Arctic Sea," Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

Serdyukov was quoted as saying that the hijackers of the ship, whose disappearance baffled maritime authorities for weeks, included nationals from Russia, Estonia, and Latvia.

Russia's Navy on August 17 found the missing merchant ship, whose disappearance baffled maritime authorities across Europe for over two weeks, in the Atlantic Ocean near the Cape Verde islands.

Serdyukov told President Dmitry Medvedev that the 4,000-ton ship had been found off Cape Verde, and that the crew were safe and had been taken aboard a navy antisubmarine ship.

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

"Today [August 17] at 1 a.m. 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 [15] crew have been transferred to our antisubmarine 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 $1.3-million cargo of timber, was supposed to have docked on August 4 in the Algerian port of Bejaia but never arrived.

There was concern 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 were seriously hurt.

In comments to media, Serdyukov did not say if the crew had been held against their will.

"I think that in the next couple of hours we will be able to say in more detail what happened to them, why contact with them was lost, why [the ship] changed its course and all other details," Serdyukov said.

Piracy in European waters would be almost unprecedented in modern times, though a wave of hijackings has plagued shipping off Somalia.

Viktor Matveyev, the director of the Finnish-based company Solchart which operates the vessel, told Reuters last week he believed the ship had been hijacked and local Finish media had reported that a ransom had been demanded.

But the European Commission expressed doubts that the "Arctic Sea" had fallen prey to pirates. The search for the ship had also involved many European countries and NATO.

There were numerous reported sightings of the vessel, though one of the last documented radio contacts with maritime authorities was on July 28 from the Dover Strait between Britain and France.

Shortly afterwards an electronic signal showing its location was turned off.