MOSCOW (Reuters) - The hijackers of a cargo ship that disappeared off the coast of France threatened to blow it up if their ransom demands were not met, Russian news agencies said on Wednesday.
Russia on Tuesday arrested eight people on suspicion of hijacking the Arctic Sea off the Swedish coast and sailing it to the Atlantic Ocean, ending weeks of silence about the fate of a ship which has intrigued European maritime authorities.
Limited information from Russian officials has failed to satisfy skeptics who voiced doubts about whether the piracy actually took place or was a convenient cover story to conceal a possible secret cargo of arms or nuclear material.
“The crew members have already confirmed that the captors demanded a ransom and threatened to blow up the vessel if their orders were not obeyed,” Interfax quoted a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman as saying.
“The crew members also claim that the people who seized the Arctic Sea were armed and got rid of their weapons when the ship (Russian navy ship) Ladny ordered the dry cargo carrier’s crew to stop the vessel,” he said.
Climbing gear, flares and a high-speed inflatable boat supposedly used in the hijack were found aboard the Arctic Sea, RIA news agency quoted the spokesman as saying at a briefing for Russian media.
The agencies did not say what ransom was demanded. Nobody answered the phone when Reuters called the ministry’s press service to attempt to verify the reports.
The Maltese-registered, Russian-crewed vessel and its $1.3 million cargo of timber disappeared from radar screens three weeks ago, prompting speculation ranging from an attack by an organized crime gang to a top-secret spy mission.
The Malta Maritime Authority said on Tuesday, without elaborating, that the Arctic Sea had “never really disappeared,” a comment which increased speculation that security services might have been involved in the affair.
Russia has said the eight detainees were citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Russia who on July 24 boarded the ship, forced the crew to change route and turned off its navigation equipment.
After heading through the Channel between England and France in late July, radio contact was lost and the 4,000-tonne ship did not deliver its cargo to the Algerian port of Bejaia on August 4. The Russian navy found the missing ship on Monday in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Verde.
Russian military personnel were arranging on Wednesday to fly the eight suspected hijackers and 11 crew members to Russia from the Cape Verde island off the west coast of Africa near where the vessel was intercepted, according to Cape Verde authorities.
Russian media reports earlier this month had said there were 15 crew on board the Arctic Sea and marine news site www.odin.tc reported the ship had a crew of 13.
The Arctic Sea was also on its way back to Russia, sailing with a replacement crew, the authorities said.
The official version of events was questioned by Yulia Latynina, a leading Russian opposition journalist and commentator.
“The Arctic Sea was carrying something, not timber and not from Finland, that necessitated some major work on the ship,” she wrote in the Moscow Times newspaper on Wednesday.
During two weeks of repair works in the Russian port of Kaliningrad just before the voyage, the ship’s bulkhead was dismantled so something very large could be loaded, she wrote.
“To put it plainly: The Arctic Sea was carrying some sort of anti-aircraft or nuclear contraption intended for a nice, peaceful country like Syria, and they were caught with it,” she said.
Additional reporting by Alvaro Andrade in Cape Verde
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