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Tale of hijacking in European waters grows more mysterious


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POSTED: Sunday, October 11, 2009

MOSCOW >> The eight men who were said to have commandeered a cargo ship in the Baltic Sea in July were locked up weeks ago. They were declared pirates, hunted down by the Russian navy, captured without a fight and marched before television cameras to a Moscow jail.

But the swashbuckling tale, rather than ending there, has instead grown more mysterious.

What exactly befell the ship, called the Arctic Sea, is still largely unknown. In fact, nearly eight weeks after it was supposedly liberated by the Russian navy, the ship is said to remain at sea under military control and has yet to make port for needed repairs. Four members of the ship's crew have not been able to leave, despite repeated calls by their families for their release.

A dearth of official information has intensified the mystery surrounding the ship, whose travails have whipped up relentless speculation since it lost contact off the coast of Portugal in late July.

And as if the situation were not grounds enough for conspiracy theories, a bizarre detail has emerged: After seizing the ship, the hijackers sought to change its name by painting a new one on its hull, Russian officials said. The new name happened to be one that was already registered to a North Korean ship.

“;Something certainly happened out there, but we are not allowed to talk about it,”; said Yevgeny Falin, who was second in command on the Arctic Sea. He spoke by telephone from Arkhangelsk, the northern Russian port city where the crew is based.

Like the other 10 crew members permitted to leave the ship who were flown on a military transport to Russia on Aug. 20, Falin said he was under orders from Russian prosecutors not to provide details about his ordeal.

He did, however, insist that the Arctic Sea was not carrying a secret cargo.

“;There was only lumber on board,”; Falin said. “;I was personally in all areas and in the ballast tanks. There was nothing else in there. I can say this with 100 percent certainty.”;

Russian investigators have said the same thing, but the assertions have done little to dampen the rumors. Why would eight men attempt a brazen act of piracy in heavily monitored European waters? Why would Russia send warships from its Black Sea Fleet to chase them a full three weeks after the hijacking occurred?

In September, a secret visit to Russia by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, sparked fresh talk among some analysts, who suggested, without any proof, that Israeli intelligence agents had uncovered a plot to smuggle missiles or other weapons aboard the Arctic Sea to a so-called rogue country.

Russia's president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, confirmed Netanyahu's visit in an interview last month with CNN, but said only that they “;discussed a wide range of issues.”;

According to Russian investigators, eight men—two Latvians, two Russians and four Estonians—raided the Arctic Sea, which flies the Maltese flag, on July 24 off the coast of Sweden, having overtaken the ship in a small speedboat.

They then took control of the 4,000-ton vessel, navigating it into the open Atlantic after evading detection by maritime authorities through some 2,000 miles of heavily trafficked waters. The Russian navy intercepted the ship 300 miles off Cape Verde on Aug. 17, and arrested the hijackers without firing a shot, officials said.

Photographs on the Web site of the Prosecutor General's Investigative Committee purport to show the lumber cargo and a bullet hole in one of the cabin walls. The photos also show a new name, the Jon Jin 2, and identification number painted on the ship's stern and bridge. Both the name and an identification number painted on the ship's stern belong to a North Korean bulk carrier that was docked in Angola at the time, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, but it offered no further explanation.

Nick Blackmore, editor of the British-based maritime safety magazine Safety at Sea International, said the ship's true identity would be difficult to mask even with the new name, and suggested the hijackers probably picked the name randomly.

“;I would be surprised if you could go into port with the vessel named differently,”; Blackmore said. “;It is not a general cargo ship, the Jon Jin 2; it's a different type of vessel and it will look distinct from the Arctic Sea.”;

Russian officials first said the Arctic Sea would be taken to the Russian port of Novorossiysk, but then said it would dock at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. For reasons that are unclear, the ship was not permitted to enter Las Palmas.

For the last week the ship has been anchored in the Mediterranean, 65 miles from the Strait of Gibraltar, said Viktor Matveyev, director of Solchart, the ship's Finland-based owner. He said he did not know what the navy planned to do with it.

“;I know where it is located, but I don't know what further will happen,”; Matveyev said by telephone. “;There has been no contact with the ship.”;

This month, Andrei A. Nesterenko, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Russian officials had finished inspecting the Arctic Sea and planned to hand the ship over to its owners.

“;Given the end of the investigation, Russia does not see the necessity in detaining the ship and does not have those intentions,”; Nesterenko said.

Yet Matveyev said the navy had given little indication that it would make good on such promises. Twice, he said, company representatives have sought to board the ship after getting permission from Russian investigators. “;Nevertheless, the ship was not handed over,”; he said.

A Russian navy official, who agreed to speak openly on the condition of anonymity, suggested that any delay was the ship owner's fault and that the navy had “;fulfilled our task: We liberated the ship from these hijackers.”; The official said that the owners had been having financial difficulties and that Matveyev was stalling a final resolution in order to avoid costly port fees. When told about the comments, Matveyev denied the accusation.

The hijackers, meanwhile, continue to deny any wrongdoing, maintaining that they were ecologists conducting research in the Baltic Sea when they encountered inclement weather and sought refuge aboard the Arctic Sea.

Now, the captain and three other crew members still cannot seem to get off the ship, according to their families. The men remained on board to help pilot the ship after the rest of the crew went to Moscow, but have been on board now for almost three months.

This week, the wives of the men sent a letter to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, asking him to secure their passage home to Archangelsk.

One of the women, Irina V. Kuznetsova, said in a telephone interview that she could not remember the last time she had spoken with her husband. “;There is no information about them,”; she said.