The Russian navy tracked the "ghost ship" Arctic Sea earlier this week, but the mystery surrounding its disappearance is likely to have Europeans scratching their heads for weeks to come.
On Tuesday morning, Moscow's defense minister confirmed the arrest of eight men accused of hijacking the 4,000-ton freighter, which had been missing since the beginning of August. The group -- which officials said included nationals of Russia, Estonia and Latvia -- had apparently hijacked the Arctic Sea, turned off the ship's tracking beacons and then forced it to take a different course.
"These people, after claiming that their boat was not working, boarded the Arctic Sea and, using the threat of arms, demanded that the crew follow all of their orders without conditions," Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told Russian news agencies. "Then the Arctic Sea moved on to an African route indicated by the aggressors after turning off navigation equipment."
Apparently the Arctic Sea was not under "armed control" when the Russian navy carried out a rescue operation over the weekend. No shots were fired during the operation.
Sailors in Good Health
On Monday, the Russian government announced that the crew of the Arctic Sea was safe. They had been taken aboard the Russian guided-missile frigate Ladny and were in good health. According to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, there has been no contact between the crew and their families.
According to news agencies in Moscow, Russian investigators are saying the hostage-takers used a speed boat to hijack the Arctic Sea on July 24. The incident happened at 11 p.m. in Swedish waters and the Arctic Sea then set a course dictated by its hijackers.
Reports about the Arctic Sea hijacking have been contradictory. Last week, the media reported that the ship had been raided on July 24 by eight armed men claiming to be drug investigators. The suspected pirates held the Russian crew as captives, but left the ship again after 12 hours without taking anything. The 4,000-ton ship then carried on, allegedly carrying a shipment of timber worth around €1.3 million ($1.8 million) to Algeria.
The British Coast Guard last had radio contact with the Arctic Sea on July 28 as it cruised through the English Channel. Until this weekend, its whereabouts and the circumstances of its disappearance remained a mystery. The longer the freighter remained out of contact, the wilder the theories about reasons for its disappearance became. Theories included everything from straightforward piracy to mutiny to political intrigue to the smuggling of something more dangerous and valuable than drugs -- weapons or nuclear equipment, perhaps.
Reports also suggested that a $1.5 million ransom demand had been made and that there had been a second attack on the ship off the coast of Portugal. The situation has been so worrying for officials here that the European Commission in Brussels even looked into the case.
Late last week, naval and search-and-rescue authorities from at least 20 countries intensified efforts to locate the missing freighter, which seemed to be headed out into the Atlantic Sea. Russia dispatched two nuclear submarines and several frigates to track the missing ship, which is operated by a Finnish shipping line with Russian connections, crewed by 15 Russians and flies a Maltese flag.
Then over the weekend the Russian navy reported that they had located the freighter off the coast of West Africa, near the Cape Verde islands. Despite this week's rescue of the crew and the arrest of the hijackers, the Russian government has not given out any further information as to how or why the ship had been hijacked. Serdyukov has said that the full story would be revealed later.