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August 16, 2009

Ransom demand in Arctic Sea case

The missing Maltese-flag cargo vessel Arctic Sea (SEE EARLIER REPORT) is still missing. Reports on Friday that it had been located 400 miles north of the Cape Verde islands had not, by Sunday evening, translated into any definite contact with the ship. There have been reports that a Russian frigate is headed to the area and that Russian ships, submarines, satellites and other assets are engaged in an intensive search for the vessel, which has a Russian crew of 15.

Yesterday, Finnish police told CNN that ship manager Solchart Management had received a ransom demand.

Viktor Matvejev, a Russian citizen living in Finland, described by Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat as the primary owner and CEO of Solchart Management, declined to comment. Helsingin Sanomat says that the Maltese-registered company "Arctic Sea" that owns the ship belongs to the Finnish company White Sea, in which Matvejev holds 70 percent of the company's shares. The remaining shares are owned by two other Russians living in Finland.

Central to the mystery is the crew's story of being boarded by fake police officers when in Swedish waters.

The Malta Maritime Authority says that it "was informed that on 24 July 2009 at about 0300 hours the Maltese registered vessel ARCTIC SEA, whilst transiting Swedish waters at 57' 24.8' N, 017' 29.6' E, was boarded by a group of eight to twelve persons allegedly masked and wearing uniforms bearing the word 'police' and armed with guns and pistols.

"Access to the vessel was gained using a black colored rubber boat which allegedly also bore the word 'Police.' The same craft was used by the assaulting persons to depart from the ship some twelve hours later heading in an easterly direction from ship's position.

"During their stay onboard, the members of the crew were allegedly assaulted, tied gagged, and blindfolded and some of them were seriously injured. All crew membe: were 'hard' questioned for a considerable amount of time. The questioning was related to drug trafficking. Later all crew members were released from their bindings but were locked within cabins until the alleged police rummaged the vessel."

It seems that none of the "seriously injured" members of the crew were taken ashore for medical treatment and the ship proceeded on its way without any contact with Swedish authorities and thus no forensic examination or crew interviews by the Swedish police. However, Helsingin Sanomat reports Maria Lönegård, the head of the investigation at the Swedish police, as saying that the shipping line had been cooperative and that the police had "received the crew's accounts of the events from the shipping line in writing. We also received pictures of their injuries. There were bruises and detached teeth."

Meantime, the Malta Maritime Authority yesterday issued the following statement:

The Finnish, Swedish and Maltese authorities are conducting investigations in close cooperation into the alleged offenses relating to the cargo vessel Arctic Sea. The investigated offences are alleged aggravated extortion and alleged hijacking. Taken into consideration the general characteristics of the aggravated extortion and the related significant threats to life and health, any public communication on the case is not possible. The investigation into the case is still underway and it is not possible to give any detailed information on it at this stage.

According to the allegations, also published in international media, the cargo vessel Arctic Sea, registered under the Maltese flag, was hijacked on the Swedish waters on 24 July 2009. The Finnish shipping company reported the case to the Finnish police which referred it to the Swedish police. The authorities have not been able to confirm the alleged hijacking, and the connection between the alleged incident and the later events has not been established yet.

Finland, Sweden and Malta started joint investigation early on in the case. In addition, authorities from more than 20 countries have contributed to it. The communication has been conducted through the Interpol and Europol channels.

The Situation Center for the pre-trial investigation conducted in Finland and the international communications is located at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Finland. Finnish Customs, Border Guard, Finnish Security Police and different units of the local police, among others, have been key partners of the NBI in the case.

Further press release will be issued as soon as investigative circumstances allow.


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