A secret cargo and not just timber may be on board a missing ship whose last known radio contact was with British Coastguards, it was suggested today.
Russia’s navy fleet and two nuclear submarines have been scrambled as efforts intensified to locate the Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea and its 15-strong Russian crew.
Experts and marine authorities continued to be baffled today that the 4,000-tonne vessel “disappeared” after its last official recorded positioning off northern France on July 30.
Mikhail Voitenko, editor of Russia’s Sovfracht maritime bulletin, said the ship, carrying sawn timber from Finland to Algeria, might have been targeted because it was also loaded with an unknown cargo.
He told the Russia Today news channel: “The only sensible answer is that the vessel was loaded secretly with something we don’t know anything about.
“We have to remember that before loading in Finland the vessel stayed for two weeks in a shipyard in Kaliningrad.
“I’m sure it cannot be drugs or illegal criminal cargo. I think it is something much more expensive and dangerous.
“It seems some third party didn’t want this transit to be fulfilled so they made this situation highly sophisticated and very complicated.”
The Arctic Sea made routine radio contact with Dover Coastguard as it was about to enter the Strait of Dover from the North Sea at 1.52pm on July 28.
Days later Interpol informed the British Coastguard that the ship had been hijacked days before in the Baltic Sea.
According to reports, it was boarded by up to 10 armed men purporting to be anti-drugs police on July 24.
Some 12 hours later, the intruders apparently left the ship on a high-speed inflatable boat and allowed the vessel to continue on its passage but with its communications equipment damaged.
By the time Interpol alerted Dover Coastguard about the apparent hijacking, the Arctic Sea had already passed through the English Channel, UK Coastguards said.
The ship failed to reach its destination at Bejaia in northern Algeria on August 4, as a supposed crew member on board the vessel told Dover Coastguard when radio contact was made.
It was last recorded on the AISLive ship tracking system off the coast of Brest, northern France, just before 1.30am on July 30, but its whereabouts now remains a mystery.
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has ordered all Russian navy ships in the Atlantic to search for the missing vessel, the country’s Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Mark Clark, of the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), said Dover Coastguard was unsuspecting of anything untoward as a supposed crew member radioed before the ship journeyed through the Channel.
He said: “It’s bizarre. There is no coastguard I know who can remember anything like this happening. Who would think that a hijacked ship could pass through one of the most policed and concentrated waters in the world?”
The MCA said it was informed a Portuguese coastal patrol aircraft spotted the vessel later but its current whereabouts remain unknown.
Mark Dickinson, general secretary of seafarers’ union Nautilus International, raised concerns about the authorities’ “relaxed approach” which he claimed had “led to the shipping industry being the Achilles heel of global security”.