MOSCOW — A Russian-manned cargo ship that vanished last month in the Atlantic was found Friday near Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa, according to French and Russian officials. There was no immediate information about the condition of the crew or whether there was anyone else onboard.
The Arctic Sea — carrying a load of timber and 15 Russian sailors — disappeared after passing through the English Channel on July 28. The Maltese-flagged freighter sent radio messages as it sailed along the coasts of France and Portugal, but then all contact was lost.
"Cape Verde coast guards said they have located the boat" about 520 miles off Cape Verde, said French Defense Ministry spokesman Capt. Jerome Baroe. France was involved in search efforts together with several other countries.
Two military officials in Brussels separately confirmed the ship had been tracked and located off West Africa. The officials asked not to be named while the operation was ongoing.
Russian naval ships were ordered to pursue the ship after the Cape Verde coast guard reported the freighter was outside the country's territorial waters to the north, Russian Ambassador to Cape Verde Alexander Karpushin told The Associated Press.
The ambassador did not say when the naval ships were expected to arrive in the area. The four ships involved in the search, including a frigate, had entered the Atlantic late Tuesday. Their whereabouts Friday were unknown.
It also was unclear whether the freighter had laid anchor or was continuing to sail south. It had enough food and fuel to last through the end of the month, the ship's Russian operator said.
The ship's crew had reported a June 24 attack in Swedish waters by up to a dozen masked men, who they said tied them up, questioned them about drug trafficking, beat them and searched the freighter before leaving 12 hours later in a high-speed inflatable boat.
The alleged attack, unusual in itself, raised further concerns because it was not reported until the freighter had passed through Britain's busy shipping lanes and was heading out into the wide Atlantic. There have been fears that some of the attackers might still be aboard.
The Arctic Sea, which left from Finland on June 23, had been due to make port Aug. 4 in Algeria with its euro1.3 million ($1.8 million) haul of timber.
The European Commission suggested the ship may have come under attack a second time. "Radio calls were apparently received from the ship, which had supposedly been under attack twice, the first time off the Swedish coast and then off the Portuguese coast," said commission spokesman Martin Selmayr. He said he could add no further comment so as not to hinder the ongoing law enforcement activities.
The Portuguese Foreign Ministry said, however, that the ship was never in Portuguese territorial waters.
The ship's operator, Solchart Arkhangelsk, said it had no information about a possible second attack. Company officials said all attempts to communicate with the crew have failed.
The ship's captain is 50-year-old Sergei Zaretsky, a veteran of such sea voyages, said Solchart deputy director Ivan Boiko. All of the sailors are from Arkhangelsk, a port city in the far northwest of Russia.
French maritime authorities said they received radio messages on July 29 as the ship sailed past the north coast of France. The Arctic Sea's report to British maritime authorities as it passed through the Dover Strait, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, was the last known voice contact with the crew.
Speculation on what might have happened to the ship has ranged from suspicions that it was carrying secret cargo — possibly narcotics — to theories about a commercial dispute. Security experts have been wary of attributing its disappearance to bandits, noting that piracy is almost unheard of in European waters.
"It would seem that these acts, such as they have been reported, have nothing in common with 'traditional' acts of piracy or armed robbery at sea," Selmayr said.
David Osler, a maritime journalist at Lloyd's List in London, said there are three main types of piracy. There is the sort seen in Somalia, where a gang takes the ship and the captain, and demands a ransom in return for release.
In the Far East, criminals would steal the entire ship, repaint it and trade it — creating what are called "phantom ships," Osler said in an interview.
And in less developed areas, piracy has sometimes been more like armed robbery, he said, noting that ships often carry cash around for necessities while traveling. "It's like holding up the local liquor store," he said. "It's just for cash."
Osler said the 18-year-old Arctic Sea was not particularly valuable. "The ship isn't really worth stealing," he said, noting most such ships have a life of 20-25 years.