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16 Aug, 2009 04:20

Ransom demand received for missing Arctic Sea

Police in Finland say the owner of the missing freighter "Arctic Sea” has received a demand for a ransom, suggesting the involvement of pirates. Meanwhile, the ship's location is still unknown.

The Finnish-operated, Maltese-flagged vessel with 15 Russian crew members aboard disappeared three weeks ago.

On Saturday, Markku Ranta-Aho of Finland's National Bureau of Investigation told YLE – the Finnish broadcasting company – that a ransom demand was made to the Helsinki-based shipping company. He added that it was for a “significant” sum of money.

French marines have refuted earlier reports that the vessel had been detected in the Bay of Biscay. They said the emergency signal picked up by satellites actually belonged to three Russian Black Sea warships that had been sent to look for the missing freighter.

According to the Russian Maritime Bulletin, the ship's Automatic Identification System (AIS) briefly started working again at 8:30am GMT Saturday, showing the vessel is in the Bay of Biscay. The journal also says there's no way to know for sure if the positioning device is even onboard the ship.

Mikhail Voitenko, chief editor of the Bulletin, cited marinetraffic.com, a source which lets you see vessel positions based on AIS data, on which the Arctic Sea appeared for a short time.

“I know, and I’ve been talking to specialists and technicians, it’s possible to fake the signal,” Voitenko said.

Earlier, France’s Defense Ministry announced that the missing “Arctic Sea” had been found near the Cape Verde Islands. However, Russia's embassy on the islands denied that the report was true.

It seems the real story of the vessel is still shrouded in mystery, and new theories over its disappearance – including pirates, a dispute between smugglers and even a government conspiracy – continue to pop up.

The “Arctic Sea” was carrying timber from Finland to Algeria and was to arrive at the port on August 4.

On July 24, the vessel was supposedly attacked by a gang disguised as police in the Baltic Sea, near the Swedish island of Oland. It then supposedly continued on its way. Swedish police are investigating the alleged attack on the freighter.

However, it's believed the “Arctic Sea” was hijacked a second time off the coast of Portugal, after it was last contacted on July 28.

The search for the cargo ship is underway with many countries participating, and a crisis centre set up in Malta to monitor the situation.

Finland, Sweden and Malta are conducting a joint investigation into the alleged offences relating to the “Arctic Sea”. According to the statement published on August 15 by the Malta Maritime Authority, “the investigated offences are alleged aggravated extortion and alleged hijacking”.

Authorities from more than 20 countries have contributed to the investigation.