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23 Aug, 2009 07:39

Arctic Sea hijack suspects questioned in Moscow

The eight suspected hijackers of the ‘Arctic Sea’ cargo ship have been arrested and questioned by investigators in a high-security prison in Moscow this week.

The vessel disappeared in July and was discovered off the West African coast three weeks later.

The sailors were rescued off the African coast without a shot being fired by the Russian Navy after their vessel was hijacked in the Baltic Sea.

Crew freed, suspects questioned

Three IL-76 military transport planes of Russia’s Air Force flew eleven crew members of the cargo ship Arctic Sea, eight alleged pirates and the investigative team back to Russia.

Crew members were freed, and the suspects arrested, on Monday after the Russian Military found the missing vessel near the Capo Verde islands, some 600 kilometers west of the African coast.

On Thursday they were brought to Moscow to appear before investigators.

Information about the ship’s location was withheld from the media to ensure the safety of the vessel’s crew following the hijack.

Ship was forced to change course – crew

The Russian Defense Ministry says the ship was boarded by hijackers and forced to change course after it had passed through the English Channel.

“During questioning members of the Arctic Sea crew explained that while in Swedish territorial waters the vessel was approached by a fast inflatable boat crewed by men wearing black tactical gear with POLICE written on their backs.

The men quickly boarded the ship, pointed weapons at the crew and demanded surrender. Eleven members of the Arctic Sea crew and eight suspected hijackers are being questioned,”
said Russian Prosecutor General’s office spokesman Vladimir Markin.

All the crew members have been freed after investigators were convinced that they have not been involved in the plot. There had been some speculation that the hijackers had collaborators on board.

A criminal case has already been opened over the abduction of the vessel and crew. Those responsible could face up to 20 years in prison.

Many questions still remain concerning Arctic Sea saga and the investigation is far from over.

Conspiracy theories

The Arctic Sea became infamous shortly after it disappeared off radars in late July while passing though the English Channel. It was en route from Finland to Algeria

The disappearance of the vessel, officially carrying almost two million dollars worth of timber, soon led to conspiracy theories.

“It carried a consignment of timber, that’s not worth a lot of money on the black market,” said John Burnett from “Maritime and Water Security Consultants”.

“So it raises the question whether the cargo ship was carrying something far more sinister. That could be anything from chemical to biological to nuclear weapons”.

Some went as far as to suggest the whole operation was nothing but a Russian military exercise or that the vessel was seized by NATO forces.

Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was keen to draw a line under the speculation:

”The Arctic sea was discovered, 300 miles of the Cape Verde island. The crew is alive, feeling well and are currently answering questions”.

Concrete details were quick to emerge. The armed captors allegedly demanded a ransom and threatened to blow the ship up if the money was not paid. The crew was forced to change course and continue their journey with all the navigation systems switched off, all of which raised global security concerns.

“We are currently in the situation where European naval assets are very thinly stretched across the globe with many priorities in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Richard Murray from Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants.

“Tracking vessels is notoriously difficult: it’s a vast area of sea out there and we shouldn’t lead ourselves into a false sense of security with technology”.

And in another twist, maritime authorities in Malta, the country whose flag the ‘Arctic sea’ was traveling under, said on Tuesday that they knew the location of the vessel all along, but decided not to make it public in order to keep all those onboard safe.

There could still be more twists ahead.

The talk surrounding the trial is about the sailors’ involvement and the pirates’ motives. It’s now down to a court of law to uncover the mysteries of the ‘Arctic Sea’.