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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Undated photo of the Maltese-registered, Finnish-chartered vessel, Arctic Sea, that mysteriously disappeared off the coast of France.
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A simple hijacking for ransom?

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.

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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.

Sweden took the report seriously when it received it on July 28, launching a full "suspected hijacking" investigation the next morning, says Linda Widmark, a spokesperson for Sweden's National Criminal Police. She says Swedish police spoke with the crew by radio at the time and that the crew told them that the men who had taken over the Arctic Sea used a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or RHIB, of the kind often seen in spy and commando films. Though much of what the crew said at that time has been discounted, under the assumption that their captors were feeding them their lines, the Russian state news agency says a boat of that style was found on board the Arctic Sea.

She says that since the Russian warship Ladny found the crew and arrested the alleged hijackers, neither Finnish nor Swedish investigators have had access to them.

"We all would like to get in contact with the crew and the suspected hijackers," said Ms. Widmark.

Since the Arctic Sea went missing, there's been intense speculation as to who was really behind the commando-style takeover of the ship. There have been suggestions of secret cargo, possible nuclear smuggling, and "state interests," but few hard facts.

Radioactive booty

"Rumors of radioactive booty aboard missing ship," was an Agence France-Presse headline on Aug. 18. An Associated Press story from the same day, "Mystery deepens as Russia keeps silent on Arctic Sea," mentions a story from the Russian press that claimed "interested parties have agreed to keep silent about the circumstances of the ship's hijacking."

Widely published speculation – including this Monitor story – exists that prior work done on the Arctic Sea at the Russian port of Kaliningrad, a notorious hub for smuggling, provided the opportunity to hide secret cargo.

Ransom demand

The Arctic Sea's Russian insurer, Renaissance Insurance, now reports that it received a $1.5 million ransom demand in early August. Not long after, Sweden, Finland, and Malta, came together in a Finnish-based police task force. According to both Swedish and Finnish police representatives, the task force's members are pursuing individual investigations, using the task force primarily as an information-exchange mechanism.

Monitor questions regarding possible nuclear issues were either dismissed or not commented upon. Calls to the Defense Ministry in Moscow were not returned.

Some news reports have claimed that the Arctic Sea was screened for radiation before it left Finland, but that's disputed by the laboratory director for Finland's Security Technology Laboratory, Haari Toivonen. The laboratory is part of STUK, the Finnish government's nuclear watchdog. "At no stage was any radiation measurement done."

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