Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Search for The Arctic Sea

As this blog is called "The Corsair," and we love us some unsolved mysteries, we have been quite taken with the disappearance of that Maltese-flagged freighter called The Arctic Sea. In addition, the story has the murky lure of international waters, pirates and radio transmissions that trail off into the briny deep. The Arctic Sea left port July 23, and the by the next day was boarded in the Baltic Sea in Swedish waters by up to 10 masked hijackers identifying themselves as anti-drug police. They tied up the crew, searched the boat and left on a high-speed rubber boat 12 hours later, destroying their communications gear in the process. They crew was last heard of on July 28 when they radioed the British to let them know they were entering the English Channel. The Arctic Sea failed make their scheduled August 4 stop in Bejaia, in northern Algeria. From ABCNews:

"In a call the Coast Guard called routine, the ship said that it was en route to the Algerian port of Bejaia, where it was due to arrive Aug. 4. The last time its position was recorded by tracking equipment was July 30, when it was off the coast of the northern French town of Brest. On Aug. 2, the ship was spotted by Portuguese coastal patrol planes.

"But the next day, Aug. 3, Interpol told the Dover Coast Guard that the ship had been hijacked more than a week before and asked the Coast Guard to stay vigilant. By that point, however, the ship had passed through the English Channel and had fallen off the radar."

There have been possible sightings off Gibraltar (image via moscowtimes)

Today, the Russian navy joined in on the search (does that mean that they will stop with the coastal submarine missions?) Russia's navy fleet and two nuclear submarines searched for the Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea. From The New York Times:

"Late last month, a cargo ship with a load of timber and a Russian crew of 15 radioed home a location off the coast of Portugal. It has not been heard from since.

"The ship, called the Arctic Sea, had been scheduled to make port in Algeria on Aug. 4 to deliver its cargo. But all attempts to raise the ship on radio or locate its emergency beacon have failed.

"'Unfortunately, the location of the ship is still not known,' Viktor Matveyev, the director of Solchart, a company in Finland that operates the ship, said by telephone on Wednesday. 'There have been no communications and no signals from the instrument that transmitted the ship’s location.' And on Thursday, Reuters quoted him as saying, 'My view is that it is most likely that the vessel has been hijacked.'

"Though details are still murky, word of the missing ship has conjured images of the brazen pirate raids frequent in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia’s coast. Before the ship disappeared, the captain radioed that unidentified men claiming to be police officers had raided the ship, but he said they had released it. A news anchor for Russia’s NTV television called the Arctic Sea the 'first ship captured by pirates in Europe.'"

That the cargo was only $1.6 million timber worth of cargo being transported between Finland to Algeria is, no pun intended, fishy. Why would anyone go to the great lengths necessary of capturing a 5,000-ton cargo ship in Western waters and hiding it for only $1.6 million in timber? Something isn't kosher in that explanation.

There have been theories that the cargo is something else. A secret cargo -- nuclear materials en route to Arab regimes? contraband en route to organized crime? -- would, oddly enough make more sense. Elaborating on the "secret cargo theory" is The Telegraph:

"Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of Russia's Sovfracht maritime bulletin, said the ship, originally thought to be carrying £1m-worth of timber from Finland to Algeria, may have been targeted because it was carrying an unknown cargo.

"'The only sensible answer is that the vessel was loaded secretly with something we don't know anything about,' he told the Russia Today news channel. 'We have to remember that before loading in Finland the vessel stayed for two weeks in a shipyard in Kaliningrad. I'm sure it cannot be drugs or illegal criminal cargo. I think it is something much more expensive and dangerous.'"

Unfortunately, I agree. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, predictably, sees the problem as a question of Russian military prestige. This burst of manliness comes hard-and-fast immediately after Vice President Joe Biden's gaffe to the Wall Street Journal ("A gaffe," Michael Kinsley once noted, "is when a politician tells the truth.") "I think we vastly underestimate the hand that we hold," Biden said, noting that Russia’s population decline is “withering.” "They’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable." Finally, about their military technology, the Vice President said, “They can’t sustain it.”

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