Curious Case of a Missing Ship
Cargo Vessel's Disappearance Confounds European Authorities, Spawns Theories

By Edward Cody and Karla Adam
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 14, 2009

PARIS, Aug. 13 -- The Arctic Sea, a 4,700-ton cargo ship registered in Malta, owned by Russians and crewed by 15 Siberian sailors, dropped off the map shortly after it cleared the English Channel and nosed into the broad Atlantic.

That was two weeks ago.

Europe's governments, maritime authorities and navies have since been wondering how a ship equipped with modern navigation devices, a tracking beacon and radio communications could have disappeared so suddenly and remained out of touch so long in one of the world's busiest and most monitored shipping lanes.

Hijacked? That may be the case, but why and by whom? Lying at the bottom? Perhaps, but there was no distress signal. Or maybe, it was suggested Thursday, there was a dispute over a stash of contraband -- such as drugs -- or even a plan by the captain and crew members to sell the declared cargo of Finnish timber in Africa and make off with the cash.

But with the ship incommunicado and its satellite beacon unreadable, nobody really has anything to go on. An international search has been launched, nevertheless, concentrated in the seas off Portugal and Gibraltar, and the Russian Defense Ministry dispatched a half-dozen warships, including two submarines, in case the ship and crew are in trouble.

The Arctic Sea, owned by the Russian firm Solchart Arkhangelsk, began its voyage in a mundane enough way. On contract for a Finnish lumber company, Rets Timber, it pulled out of Pietarsaari, a port in Finland, on July 23 with the manifest showing a hold full of wooden planks worth $1.7 million to be delivered to the busy construction sites of Algeria. It was scheduled to pull into the port of Bejaia on Aug. 4.

But soon after it left, as it churned peacefully southward, down the Baltic Sea just east of Sweden, something mysterious happened. According to the ship's owners, crew members reported by radio that 10 armed men wearing masks and claiming to be Swedish narcotics police searching for contraband drugs boarded the 294-foot Arctic Sea on July 24. The men tied up the crew members, searched the ship for 12 hours, found nothing and then left in a high-speed inflatable dinghy, the company said.

But the Swedish police said they had conducted no such raid. And the company revealed what it had been told about the boarding a week after it happened. Acting on the company's belated alarm, Interpol, the international police agency, issued an alert Aug. 3, by which time the Arctic Sea had sailed down the English Channel, through the Dover Strait and out into the Atlantic.

Maggie Hill, a spokeswoman for Britain's Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said the ship was in radio contact with the agency July 28 as required while passing through the Dover Strait. As regulations mandate, she added, the ship's officer identified the vessel, said how many people were on board, described its cargo, and detailed its route and destination.

There was no hint that anything had gone wrong, and nothing was said about the boarding off Sweden or any change of course. "There was nothing untoward at all," Hill said. "We had one and only one contact with the ship, and it was totally normal."

The next contact -- the last confirmed one -- was two days later, when French authorities reported that they picked up signals off Brest from the Arctic Sea's Automatic Identification System, a U.N.-required beacon that is supposed to beam out a ship's name and position via satellite at all times.

Since then, radio contact has been broken off and the beacon has been unreadable. The Russian news media reported that Swedish police received a call from the crew July 31, but that has not been confirmed and Swedish authorities have declined to say what, if anything, the conversation was about.

That left many lines of speculation open about what might have happened. Some experts suggested that the boarding party off Sweden was composed of pirates and still had control of the ship, intending to take it to West Africa to sell the timber. Others raised the possibility of a drug deal gone wrong, provoking a standoff between rival mafia factions. Still others harked back to cases in which the ship's captains had tried to make off with the cargo.

David Osler, industrial editor at the Lloyd's List maritime newspaper, said, "It seems to be some kind of dispute between Russian interests." The piracy theory is difficult to sustain, he pointed out, considering that the waterway is highly policed and hundreds of ships pass through every day.

Piracy, Osler said, usually breaks down into three categories: the Somalia model, in which ship and crew are held for ransom; the Asian model, in which ships are repainted and sold under another identity; and the simple holdup, in which captains are held up for the cash on board.

"None of these varieties applies here," Osler said. "There's no ransom, low-value cargo, and it's not a straightforward heist. You can rule out the main types of piracy, so it must be some other form of crime."

Adam reported from London.

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