August 11, 2009
Ship hijacked in European waters?
An international search is on for a Maltese-flag dry cargo, the Arctic Sea, missing off Portugal's Atlantic coast with its Russian crew of 15 since August 1.
The last radio contact with the ship involved the U.K.'s Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and was on July 29 when the ship was in the English Channel. The MCA now believes that ship may have been hijacked at that point.
The U.K. newspaper The Independent quotes an MCA official, Mark Clark, as saying: ""We heard from this ship, not knowing it had been hijacked, on 29 July at 5.30 in the morning. Every ship has to report to us if they are on our side of the Channel. They said they had 15 crew on board and they were going from Jacobstad to Bejaia. They were carrying a load of timber."
"It wasn't until later that we had a report from the Zeebrugge police to say it had been hijacked off the coast of Sweden. The contact we had suggested everything was O.K. on the ship but we don't know if we were talking to a hijacker or a genuine crew member with a gun at his head."
The last AIS transmissions from the ship show it off the French port of Brest in the early hours of July 30, though it was later spotted by a patrol aircraft off the Portuguese coast.
The ship is managed by a Finnish company Solchart AB, which is listed as its manager in the Equasis data base. It disappeared while en route from Finland to Algeria with a $1.8 million cargo of sawn timber
Solchart has now asked Russia to assist in tracing the vessel.
What is raising suspicions of hijacking is an incident that took place in Swedish waters on July 24 near the island of Oland.
According to one account, crew members said that, in the early morning, under cover of darkness, an inflatable with the word Polis painted on the side approached the ship. Between 8 and 10 hooded figures boarded the ship. They clubbed and tied up the night watchkeeper and an engineer. They claimed to be narcotics police and spoke English with an accent. They damaged the shipÕs communications equipment, took the mobile phones of the crew members, beat people, and searched the ship. After 12 hours, they left the ship, apparently taking nothing with them.
The Swedish police have been investigating that incident and vessel traffic recordings apparently indicate that the ship did indeed stop where the crew said the incident occurred and for the time stated. There seems to have been some delay in notifying the Swedish authorities as, apparently, Solchart only notified the flag state, Malta, of the incident.
If the ship has, indeed, been hijacked its cargo of lumber would seem an improbable target.