MOSCOW — The Russian navy has arrested eight men accused of hijacking the Arctic Sea freighter near Sweden and forcing the crew to sail to West Africa — the latest twist in a puzzling maritime mystery.
Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Tuesday the suspected hijackers were detained by a Russian naval vessel that reached the Russian-crewed freighter Monday about 300 miles (480 kilometers) off Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean. That is thousands of miles (kilometers) from the Algerian port where the ship was supposed to dock two weeks ago.
The suspected hijackers — citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Russia — were arrested without a shot being fired, state news agencies quoted Serdyukov as saying. The ship's 15 Russian crew members were safe and were taken aboard by the navy for questioning.
The motive for seizing the aging freighter and its alleged cargo of timber remained unclear. Security and maritime experts said the Arctic Sea's mysterious four-week journey pointed to something other than piracy, with some suggesting state involvement or a secret cargo, possibly of nuclear materials.
The Arctic Sea left the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on July 21. On July 30, Swedish police said the ship's owner had reported that the crew claimed the vessel was boarded by masked men on July 24 near the Swedish island of Gotland. The attackers reportedly had tied up the crew, beat them, claimed they were looking for drugs, then sped off about 12 hours later in an inflatable craft.
Serdyukov said the hijackers boarded the freighter under the pretext that there was a problem with their inflatable craft. The hijackers, who were armed, then forced the crew to change course and turned off the Arctic Sea's navigation equipment, he was quoted as saying.
By the time the Swedish report of the attack had emerged, the ship had already passed through the English Channel, where it made its last known radio contact on July 28. Signals from the ship's tracking device were picked up off France's coast late the next day, but that was the last known trace of it until Monday.
The ship's signal going dead coincided with news of the reported attack.
The disappearance of the 98-meter (320-foot) freighter had perplexed experts and officials across Europe.
Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht, said Tuesday he had spoken overnight with some of the Arctic Sea's sailors and was more puzzled than ever.
"The vessel had all the necessary modern means of communication and emergency alarms, and was located in waters where regular mobile telephones work," he said at a news conference. "To hijack the vessel so that no one makes a peep — not one alarm goes off — can you imagine how that could be? I can't."
Voitenko, whose company Sovfracht specializes in anti-piracy security consulting, said the hijacking was beyond the means of ordinary pirates.
"The operation cost more than the cargo and ship combined," he said. The 18-year-old freighter officially had a cargo of timber worth only euro1.3 million ($1.8 million).
Voitenko said he suspected the freighter was carrying an undeclared cargo and that state interests were involved. He refused to elaborate.
Prominent analyst Yulia Latynina also said she believed the ship had a secret cargo and noted that before setting sail the freighter was in the Russian port of Kaliningrad for repairs. Latynina, writing in the online Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said she suspected the involvement of special services.
She and others have reported widespread speculation that the Arctic Sea was smuggling nuclear materials.
Observers also have noted the Russian government's delay in taking action. President Dmitry Medvedev only sent the navy to search for the missing ship on Aug. 12 after relatives of the crew publicly appealed for government help.
The Arctic Sea, which flies under a Maltese flag, is operated by the Finnish company Solchart, which has Russian management and a sister company providing technical support in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk, the home of all 15 crew members.
Associated Press writers David Nowak and Mike Eckel contributed to this report.