ASTRAKHAN, Russia (Reuters) - The Russian navy found a missing cargo ship on Monday in the Atlantic Ocean near the Cape Verde islands, raising the prospect of solving a mystery that has baffled maritime authorities for weeks.
The Arctic Sea and its 15-man Russian crew went missing in European waters two weeks ago, sparking speculation of foul play or even a secret cargo targeted by pirates or spies.
Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told President Dmitry Medvedev that the 4,000-tonne ship had been found off Cape Verde, and that the crew were safe and had been taken aboard a navy anti-submarine ship.
He gave no details of how the vessel had been found or why it had disappeared, but promised to say more later.
“Today at 1 a.m. Moscow time, the ship was found 300 miles off the Cape Verde islands,” Serdyukov told Medvedev during a presidential visit to the southern Russian city of Astrakhan.
“The crew have been transferred to our anti-submarine ship, the Ladny, where they are being questioned to clarify all the circumstances of the disappearance,” he said. “The crew are all alive and well.”
The Kremlin had ordered warships and submarines to scour the Atlantic for the Arctic Sea, whose last contact with its Finnish-based operator was on August 1 off Portugal.
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 but never arrived.
There was concern for the crew after the Malta Maritime Authority said it had received reports that the ship had been boarded by armed men in masks posing as anti-drugs police in Swedish waters on July 24.
It said crew members had been assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded, and some were seriously hurt.
In comments to media, Serdyukov did not say if the crew had been held against their will.
“I think that in the next couple of hours we will be able to say in more detail what happened to them, why contact with them was lost, why (the ship) changed its course and all other details,” Serdyukov said.
Piracy in European waters would be almost unprecedented in modern times, though a wave of hijackings has plagued shipping off Somalia.
Viktor Matveyev, the director of the Finnish-based company Solchart which operates the vessel, told Reuters last week he believed the ship had been hijacked and local Finish media had reported that a ransom had been demanded.
But the European Commission expressed doubts that the Arctic Sea had fallen prey to pirates. The search for the ship had also involved many European countries and NATO.
There were numerous reported sightings of the vessel, though one of the last documented radio contacts with maritime authorities was on July 28 from the Dover Strait between Britain and France.
Shortly afterwards an electronic signal showing its location was turned off.
Reporting by Denis Dyomkin, writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Conor Sweeney; editing by Tim Pearce