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Intrigue swirls around missing Russian ship

Has piracy really returned to Europe's waters after 100 years, or is something else afoot?

By / August 13, 2009

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

SOVFRACHT/Reuters

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MOSCOW – The Arctic Sea, a Russian-operated ship missing in the Atlantic, might be the victim of one of the first true hijackings at sea in Europe since the Barbary pirates were defeated in the 19th century.

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But analysts are skeptical that a Somalia-style attack on shipping is possible in modern Europe. Speculation in the Russian media has turned to alternative explanations: Nuclear-weapons smuggling? An intermafia dispute with the ship's crew as pawns? Old-fashioned insurance fraud? All have been posited.

One expert even hypothesizes that the mysterious disappearance of the Arctic Sea, which left Finland two weeks ago with 15 Russian seamen and a load of timber bound for Algeria, might be a bit of extreme political theater to convince Russia's parliament to give its president expanded military powers.

The ship, whose cargo is worth about $2 million, was supposed to have arrived in Algiers on Aug. 4, but hasn't been heard from since being spotted by a Portuguese maritime patrol plane near that country's coast around August 1.

The vessel appears to have vanished into thin air, a curious affair that has engaged the attention of Finnish police, Swedish investigators, Interpol, and the Russian Navy. The story is complicated by reports that the ship was possibly boarded in Swedish waters by a group of masked men who identified themselves as "Swedish antidrug police."

Boarding party

The captain of the Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea reported that the crew was tied up for 12 hours, but later released unharmed. The boarders, he said, sped away on rubber speed boats. Swedish authorities say they are perplexed by the incident, and are looking into it.

Viktor Matveyev, managing director of Solchart, the Helsinki-based company that operates the Arctic Sea, told the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti that he had no idea where his ship is. "In this situation, anything's possible," he said. "Still, it's hard to believe that this [piracy] could happen in Swedish territorial waters."

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