Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hunt on for 'hijacked cargo ship' !

Dover Strait

A search is under way for a cargo ship which may have travelled through the English Channel after apparently being hijacked by pirates.

Coastguards fear the Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea, carrying up to 15 Russian crew, was hijacked in the Baltic sea.

UK authorities made contact with it as it entered the Strait of Dover. The Russian navy told the Itar-Tass agency five warships were hunting the vessel.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said the situation was "bizarre".

Spokesman Mark Clark said: "Who would think that a hijacked ship could pass through one of the most policed and concentrated waters in the world?

"It seems strange to think that a ship which had been hijacked was passing along the channel along with ships carrying day-trippers going over to Calais for the day."

Hijackers may have been coercing the ship's crew when they made radio contact with coastguards at Dover on 28 July, the MCA fears.

Reports say Swedish authorities were told by the Finnish shipping line operating the 3,988-tonne cargo ship that it was boarded by up to 10 armed men claiming to be anti-drugs police as it sailed through the Baltic sea on July 24.

The intruders apparently left the vessel - which was carrying about £1m worth of sawn timber from Finland to Algeria - 12 hours later on an inflatable boat after damaging the Arctic Sea's communications equipment.

But on 3 August, Interpol told Dover Coastguard that the crew had been hijacked in the Baltic Sea and asked UK authorities to be alert as the vessel passed through the channel.

By then the ship had already left the Strait of Dover and was last recorded off the coast of Brest, northern France, just before 0130 BST on 30 July.

The MCA said it was told the vessel had seemingly been spotted subsequently by a Portuguese coastal patrol aircraft but its current location was unknown.

Mr Clark said the person on board whom coastguards had spoken to had told them the ship was due to arrive in Bejaia, northern Algeria, on 4 August at 2300 BST.

He added: "There is no coastguard I know who can remember anything like this happening.

"There didn't seem anything suspicious when contact was made. It could well be that a crew member had a gun put to his head by a hijacker when contact was made, but who knows?

"We are extremely curious to find out what could have happened to this vessel."

Mark Dickinson, general secretary of seafarers' union Nautilus International, said the situation was "unbelievable" and criticised authorities for their "relaxed" view of marine hijacking, in comparison with that of aircraft.

"It is alarming that, in the 21st Century, a ship can apparently be commandeered by hijackers and sail through the world's busiest waterway with no alarm being raised and no naval vessel going to intercept it," he said.

World leaders have become increasingly concerned about pirates operating off the coast of Somalia.

But Nick Davis, who runs the private security firm Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, told the BBC's Today programme that the relatively low value of the cargo suggested this was a different kind of piracy to that seen off the coast of East Africa.

Instead, he suggested, it was more likely that the apparent seizure was the result of a "commercial dispute" in which one party had decided to "take matters into their own hands".

He added: "Piracy is piracy - if someone's wanting to take that vessel, and they're not authorised, and they use a speedboat to go and get it, then it's no different to what the Somalis do.

"However, I don't believe they would have boarded that vessel firing weapons in the air, and threatening to kill the crew.

"Whilst it is piracy, it's not like what we know in Somalia."

Russian authorities have said they have been assessing the situation and five Navy vessels - including two nuclear submarines - have joined the search, according to Itar-Tass.

Commander-in-chief Vladimir Vysotsky told the agency: "On orders from President Dmitry Medvedev, all ships and vessels of the Russian Navy in the Atlantic have been dispatched to search for the missing ship."

Naval staff had no indication of the ship's location, despite reports it may be off West Africa, he added.

Map of ship's route

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