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MOSCOW (Reuters) - The mystery surrounding a missing merchant ship deepened Thursday with the vessel's operator suggesting piracy and maritime experts suspecting foul play or even a secret cargo.
The Kremlin ordered Russian warships to join the hunt for the 4,000-tonne, 98-meter bulk carrier Arctic Sea, whose fate has baffled maritime authorities across Europe and North Africa.
The Maltese-registered vessel, carrying a $1.3-million cargo of timber, was supposed to have docked on August 4 in the Algerian port of Bejaia. It never arrived and is thought to have last made contact from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of France.
Mikhail Boytenko, editor of Russia's respected Sovfracht maritime journal, said that the ship may have been carrying a secret cargo unknown to the vessel's owners or operators.
"I think there was probably some sort of secret cargo on this vessel, not criminal but secret, and a third party of some sort did not want the cargo to get to another party so this highly sophisticated operation was cooked up," he told Reuters.
"I don't think that it was pirates who took this vessel but it really smells of some sort of state involvement. This is real cloak and dagger stuff, like a (John) le Carre novel."
A wave of piracy has hit shipping off Somalia, and an international naval force patrols its coast in an effort to protect merchant vessels. But a hijacking in European waters would be almost unprecedented in modern times.
"There has not been a so called incident of this kind around in Europe for a very long time," said Jim Davis, chairman of London-based industry group the International Maritime Industries Forum.
"It is a unique incident so far in European waters."
Piracy is rare in European waters with only a couple of recent incidents involving private yachts in the Mediterranean.
Concerns over the safety of the 15-member Russian crew were raised after the Malta Maritime Authority said it received reports the ship had been boarded by armed men in masks posing as anti-drugs police in Swedish waters on July 24.
Swedish authorities said none of its law enforcement agencies had been involved. Crew members were assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded and some were seriously hurt, Malta said.
Russia's navy denied a report on state television that the frigate Ladny was following a ship of a similar description in the Atlantic Ocean not far from Gibraltar.
"My view is that it is most likely that the vessel has been hijacked," Viktor Matveyev, director of the Finnish company Solchart, which operates the vessel, told Reuters. "We of course hope that everything is okay with the crew."
Swedish police said an investigator had spoken briefly to the crew on July 31 when the vessel was in the Atlantic after sailing through the Dover Strait between Britain and France. An electronic signal showing its location has been turned off.
The head of division at Sweden's national crime police, Maria Lonegard, told Reuters Television that the ship had behaved erratically in the Baltic Sea.
She played down fears of piracy, saying a written statement about events on the ship had been communicated from the vessel to the Finnish operator and then to Swedish police, she said.
Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB, was helping to investigate the mystery and its agents were at the offices of Solchart Arkhangelsk, which is listed as the ship's owner, Russian media reported.
Relatives of the crew appealed to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in an open letter and demanded a criminal investigation into the vessel's disappearance, Russian media reported, but have now stopped speaking publicly about the case.
Additional reporting by Conor Sweeney and Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow, Tracy Rucinski in Madrid, Ilze Filks in Helsinki, Veronica Ek in Stockholm and Jonathan Saul in London; Editing by Charles Dick