Mystery deepened on Wednesday over a missing Russian-crewed cargo ship last seen last month in the English Channel, as experts debated whether pirates, a mafia quarrel or a commercial dispute were to blame.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered his navy to join the search for the Arctic Sea, which left Finland with its timber cargo on July 23 bound for the Algerian port of Bejaia — but has not been seen for two weeks.
Swedish police say the ship was hijacked in the Baltic Sea on July 24, when masked men claiming to be anti-drugs police boarded the ship, tied up the crew and searched the vessel. The men reportedly left after about 12 hours.
Following the Arctic Sea’s disappearance, however, maritime experts are questioning whether the hijackers remained in control of the ship as it passed through the Channel and headed out to sea.
Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) spoke to someone on board on July 28, as the ship passed through the Strait of Dover, and everything seemed normal.
“There didn’t seem anything suspicious when contact was made. It could well be that a crew member had a gun put to his head by a hijacker when contact was made, but who knows?” MCA spokesman Mark Clark said.
Pirates are active in many parts of the world, particularly off the coast of Somalia where hijackers seized more than 130 merchant ships last year, International Maritime Bureau figures showed.
Attacks in European waters, however, are extremely rare and Clark said he believed that if the Arctic Sea had been hijacked, it would have been the first such incident in living memory.
The ship is linked to an automatic tracking system, but the last signal was received on July 30, showing it was off the coast of northwestern France.
Swedish police revealed on Wednesday they had been in telephone contact with the crew on July 31, but refused to give any details.
Spokeswoman Ylva Voxby said, however, that detectives expected the Arctic Sea to return soon.
“The boat is planned to return to the Baltic at the end of August. We are planning to interview the crew then,” she said.
Maltese officials said they believed the ship, which flies under a Maltese flag, is in the Atlantic Ocean.
“It would appear that the ship has not approached the Straits of Gibraltar, which indicates that the ship headed out in the Atlantic Ocean,” a statement from the Maltese Maritime Authority said.
The ship, which is carrying 6,700m³ of sawn timber, failed to arrive in Bejaia as planned on Aug. 4.
Experts believe piracy is not the only answer to the disappearance, saying it could be caused by a commercial dispute or even a quarrel between different factions of Russian organized crime.
While the ship’s operating company, Solchart Management, is in Finland, officials believe it is linked to the Russia-based Solchart Arkhangelsk.
“It doesn’t look like bog standard piracy. If it’s standard piracy, where’s the ransom?” said David Osler, industrial editor at maritime newspaper Lloyds List, who raised the Russian mafia possibility.
He suggested it may have been part of a “drugs deal gone wrong,” noting the hijackers’ claim to be anti-drugs police and their search of the ship.
“Another possibility is a hijack to order. You steal the ship, respray it and sell it on, but the ship was built in 1991 — who would go to the trouble of hijacking that to order?” he said.
Maritime intelligence expert Nick Davis, chief executive of the Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre, said a commercial dispute was likely.
“It’s not carrying a valuable cargo, so I strongly suspect this is a commercial dispute with its owner and a third party, and they have decided to take matters into their own hands,” he told the BBC.
Davis said the Arctic Sea was unlikely to have sunk, saying: “You can’t lose the vessel with all that cargo without telltale signs being washed out.”
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