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Russia says Arctic Sea hijackers demanded ransom, threatened to blow up ship

Russian authorities say the case of the missing cargo ship has a straightforward explanation, but many in Europe still speculate something else happened.

By Ritt GoldsteinCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2009

Undated photo of the Maltese-registered, Finnish-chartered vessel, Arctic Sea, that mysteriously disappeared off the coast of France.

SOVFRACHT/ Reuters

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Dalarna, Sweden

A simple hijacking for ransom?

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There's no mystery behind the hijacking of the Arctic Sea, the Russian-crewed cargo ship that touched off a frantic Russian naval hunt and a round of conspiracy theories, say Russian officials.

On Wednesday, Russian state news agencies quoted a Defense Ministry official as saying that eight hijackers who were detained on Monday had threatened to blow up the ship and its crew if a ransom of $1.5 million wasn't paid. He said the hijackers, who appear to have taken control of the ship shortly after it left Finland, and the crew continue to be questioned.

Russia says it has four Estonians, two Latvians, and two Russians in custody. They were arrested "during the operation to liberate the Arctic Sea," which was carried out by a Russian warship. The ships 15-man crew are all Russian nationals [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of crew members.].

"Extortion and hijacking – that's where we are concentrating our investigation ... and that's the only thing we have factual evidence for," says Jan-Olof Nyholm, a detective superintendent for Finland's National Bureau of Investigation.

But doubts about this version of events continue to swirl.

Political analysts and maritime security experts remain skeptical that the hijackers were merely interested in the crew or the ship's cargo – a load of lumber bound for Algeria.

That bulky, low-value cargo was worth about $1.8 million, which makes the danger and expense of a takeover hardly seem worth it. "Hijacking lumber ... it's sort of like counterfeiting one dollar bills," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a provider of defense and intelligence information. Mr. Pike calls the Arctic Sea incident an "out-of-pattern hijacking."

A drug raid?

On July 28 Victor Matveev, the owner of Solchart, the Helsinki company that owns the ship, contacted the Russian Embassy in Stockholm with a strange story. He described how a crewman had radioed him and told him that the ship was raided and held for 12 hours by men claiming to be Swedish antidrug police four days earlier. Mr. Matveev said the crew told him the boarders had left.

The Russian Embassy relayed this information to the Swedish Foreign Ministry, which passed it on to their police. Swedish authorities say there was no police raid. Why Matveev thought to contact the Russian Embassy and not Swedish officials on the matter, or didn't think it odd that his crew had waited four days to report such an incident, is unclear.

Repeated calls to Matveev went unanswered.

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