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Piracy fears as cargo ship vanishes off England

Piracy fears as cargo ship vanishes off England

Experts say acts of piracy are unheard of in heavily-policed European waters.

London: An international search operation was underway on Wednesday for a cargo ship which vanished after being involved in what is feared to be an unprecedented incident of piracy in European waters.

The Russian-crewed Arctic Sea, carrying a 6,500-ton cargo of timber from Finland to Algeria, was last heard of nearly two weeks ago when it passed through the English Channel, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Russia said naval vessels authorised to use force were now hunting the vessel backed by "space-based" detection systems.

The Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea is claimed to have been briefly hijacked off Sweden when raiders posing as drug enforcement officers tied up, gagged and blindfolded the crew, causing several injuries, and searched the vessel.

It then apparently vanished after a last known contact on July 31, failing to make its scheduled arrival in north Africa on August 4.

Experts say acts of piracy are unheard of in heavily-policed European waters, with maritime crime largely restricted to areas such as Somalia in Africa where governments have little or no control over their ports.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has instructed the country's Defense Minister Anatoly Serduykov to "take all necessary measures to locate, monitor and, if necessary, to free the missing vessel," a statement said.

Maltese maritime officials said several governments were now trying to track down the ship.

According to Swedish police and the Maltese Maritime Authority (MMA), the Arctic Sea's crew said its troubles began on July 24 when a group of between eight and 12 men boarded at 3 am, occupying the vessel for 12 hours.

According to witness accounts, they restrained the 15-man crew and questioned them about drug trafficking before locking them in their quarters.

"During their stay onboard, the members of the crew were allegedly assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded and some of them were seriously injured," an MMA statement said.

Swedish police spokeswoman Maria Lönegård said during the suspected hijack, the vessel's radar and satellite systems were off-line for two hours, during which it was witnessed performing "extreme maneuvers."

Since the crew believed they had been boarded by a genuine law enforcement agency, no police complaint was initially made, and the Arctic Sea continued on its way. Details eventually reached police through diplomatic channels.

Lönegård said Swedish police spoke with the Arctic Sea's captain on July 31, when the ship was believed to be off the coast of France. This is believed to be the last known contact with the vessel.

Earlier, on July 28, the ship had made contact with British coastguard -- a standard procedure as it passed through the busy waters of the English Channel -- but reported nothing untoward.

Russia's Defense Ministry said on it's Web site that Black Sea Fleet patrol ship Ladny was heading the search operation and had Wednesday passed through the Strait of Gibraltar en route to the Atlantic.

While piracy levels have recently increased off the coast of East Africa, incidents in European waters are unheard of, according to UK maritime experts.

"Attacks on ships are extremely rare, basically they don't happen," said Jeremy Harrison of the British Chamber of Shipping.

The International Maritime Bureau in London, which tracks ship piracy worldwide, said it did not believe the Arctic Sea had fallen into the hands of pirates.

"We are not going to classify this as a piracy event, mainly because of the location and circumstance," he said. The bureau is unaware of any piracy in recent memory in the waters off Sweden," spokesman Cyrus Mody said.

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian Maritime Bulletin Web site said he believed the vessel was carrying "some kind of secret cargo" which made it attractive to potential hijackers.
first published:August 12, 2009, 23:20 IST