Piracy fears as mystery deepens over missing ship

RUSSIAN navy vessels were patrolling the Atlantic yesterday in search of a Maltese-flagged ship that has been missing for more than two weeks since sailing through the English Channel.

The Arctic Sea, its 15 Russian crew members and its €1.3 million cargo of timber had been due to make port on August 4 in Algeria but hasn’t arrived.

The ship was last heard from on July 28, making contact with British maritime officials and then sailing through the Dover Strait.

Speculation on what might have happened has ranged from theories that it might have been carrying secret cargo to the possibility that it fell victim to an almost unheard of case of sea banditry in European waters.

“If this is a criminal act, it appears to be following a new business model,” marine intelligence expert Graeme Gibbon-Brooks said.

Malta Maritime Authority said the MV Artic Sea “has not approached the Straits of Gibraltar, which indicates that the ship headed out in the Atlantic Ocean”.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered that “all necessary measures” be taken to find the missing ship, and the Russian navy turned all of its vessels in the Atlantic — including three landing ships, a frigate and two nuclear-powered submarines — to search.

Finnish police said they also were assisting in the investigation.

The ship had reported being attacked on July 24 off the Swedish island of Oland. It said a group of 10 masked men had boarded, tied up the crew and beat them before leaving 12 hours later in a high-speed inflatable boat, Swedish police said.

The Arctic Sea, having begun its journey in Finland, said the masked men identified themselves as police officers — but Swedish police said they hadn’t searched any ships in that area.

“We were very puzzled when we first heard about this,” Swedish police investigator Ingemar Isaksson said at the time. “I have never heard of anything like this in Swedish waters.”

On July 28, the Arctic Sea made routine contact with British maritime authorities as it passed through the busy Dover Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The ship offered what appeared to be a routine report — identifying itself and its cargo, and saying where it had come from and where it was going, said Mark Clark of Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

He said the agency is “extremely curious” about what happened to the ship. “There is no coastguard I know who can remember anything like this happening,” Clark said.

Where the ship was next spotted is uncertain. Russian media reports say the last contact was on July 30 when the ship was in the Bay of Biscay, and that it was later spotted by a Portuguese patrol plane, but there was no contact.

But Portuguese Navy spokesman Commander Joao Barbosa said “we can guarantee that the ship is not in Portuguese waters nor did it ever pass through Portuguese waters”.

The cargo was shipped by Finnish wood supplier Rets Timber, which also said it had no information about the ship’s whereabouts.

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