What Happened to the Missing Ship 'Arctic Sea'?

Russia's president has ordered the Russian Navy to take part in the search for the cargo ship "Arctic Sea." Manned by a Russian crew, the ship vanished two weeks ago off the coast of southern Europe.

President Dmitry Medvedev told Secretary of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov to "take all necessary measures to establish the whereabouts and to find the missing ship 'Arctic Sea' with a Russian crew on board, as well as to free [the ship's crew], should such a need arise," the Kremlin told Interfax on Wednesday.

The Arctic Sea is a 5,000-ton cargo ship that was carrying timber worth approximately $1.6 million from Finland to Algeria. It left port July 23, and the next morning was reportedly boarded in Swedish waters in the Baltic Sea by a band of masked hijackers in a high-speed rubber boat, who identified themselves as anti-drug police. The 15-man crew was tied up while the hijackers searched the ship.

After 12 hours, they apparently disembarked and sped away, breaking radio and other communications gear but without taking anything of value, the crew reported to the Maltese Maritime Authority, where the ship is registered. Instead of making port after the incident, the ship continued on its trip.

The ship was last heard from July 28, when it radioed the Dover, England, Coast Guard because it was approaching the English Channel. 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.

Russian Navy Ships Searching for Missing Vessel

Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky of the Russian navy told news agency Itar Tass that all navy ships and vessels in the Atlantic had been assigned to the search. The navy has also said it would search aerially, using "space-based" monitoring technology to scan the area.

Theories abound as to what may have happened to the ship: pirates hired by a company could have taken it hostage as part of a commercial dispute; it may have been sunk; or maybe there was illegal cargo on board, and the hijackers are taking the ship somewhere along the West African coast.

"This whole story is one big mystery," said Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of the Russian Maritime Bulletin, who supports the theory that the ship was carrying "precious or dangerous cargo" bound for somewhere in Africa.

"To hijack the vessel in European waters is a very sophisticated and complicated operation," said Voitenko. "So to do it there must be some very serious forces behind it, not just ordinary criminals."

He said it is also highly possible that the ship, out of touch for long enough, has sunk without a trace. Voitenko questions why it has taken so long for Russia to mobilize its forces but is optimistic that the ship will be found now that it has.

On Tuesday, a letter from the families of the 15 sailors to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was released in which they asked the state to use everything at its disposal to find the crew. "It's very important to us that our loved ones return home safe and sound," they wrote.

Piracy has been rampant in the waters off the Horn of Africa in recent years, but attacks on ships off of Europe happens extremely rarely, if ever. "It's quite unique and unheard of," said Voitenko, calling the saga "unbelievable."