MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian authorities flew the suspected hijackers of the cargo vessel Arctic Sea to Moscow on Thursday and took them for interrogation, dismissing suggestions that the ship may have been carrying weapons.
The Russian Navy tracked the ship into the Atlantic after what Moscow has termed an act of piracy and boarded it off the Cape Verde islands in the early hours of Monday, freeing the 15 Russian crewmen.
The mass of conflicting details in a saga that began with the ship’s apparent disappearance last month have sparked speculation that it may have been targeted because it was carrying a secret cargo of arms or even nuclear materials.
The suspected pirates — nationals of Estonia, Latvia and Russia — were flown to Russia’s Chkalovsky military airfield from Cape Verde aboard an Ilyushin-76 aircraft, then whisked off to the Lefortovo high-security prison.
“The eight men ... have been handed over to the Prosecutor-General’s main investigative unit,” Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told President Dmitry Medvedev, according to a Kremlin spokeswoman.
Two more aircraft also flew investigators and 11 of the 15-man crew to Moscow. Families of the crew declined to talk to reporters.
Four crew members including the captain remained on the ship, which Serdyukov said would be towed to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk for “further investigative measures.”
Russia said the Arctic Sea was hijacked on July 24 off the coast of Sweden by eight armed men, who forced the crew to sail for Africa with its positioning systems switched off.
The hijackers — who Russian investigators said were wearing black police uniforms — then threatened to blow up the ship if their ransom demands were not met, the Defense Ministry said. Russian television said 1 million euros had been demanded.
Members of the crew told Russia’s Vesti television channel the hijackers had threatened to shoot the captain after one of the crew sent an SMS on a mobile telephone to alert the authorities to the hijacking.
Maritime experts note that piracy has been extremely rare in northern Europe since the age of buccaneers in the 17th century.
Russia has so far released no detailed account of why pirates would target a ship carrying a relatively low-value cargo of timber in some of the world’s best policed seas.
But Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, lashed out at speculation about a secret cargo after Tarmo Kouts, a former chief of Estonia’s Defense forces, was quoted in Russian media as saying the Arctic Sea may have been trying to deliver cruise missiles destined for Iran.
“Instead of speculating about the nature of the cargo carried on the Arctic Sea and inventing different types of tales ... important lessons should be drawn from this event,” Rogozin was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
“Instead of wagging their tongues in speculation, European officials should think about the need to tackle this threat (of piracy).”
Radio contact was apparently lost with the Arctic Sea after it headed through the Channel in late July, and the 4,000-tonne ship did not deliver its cargo of timber to the Algerian port of Bejaia on August 4.
Only after the Russian Navy boarded the ship did the Malta Maritime Authority say it had never really disappeared and that maritime authorities had been tracking it for days.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Zhukovsky, Denis Dyomkin in Sochi and Denis Pinchuk in St Petersburg; Editing by Janet Lawrence