Russia, France at sea over missing ship

MOSCOW: A Russian maritime Web site said the missing

Arctic Sea’s tracking system was broadcasting signals from the Bay of Biscay,

but French officials said today all indications still pointed to the ship being near Cape Verde.

Russian and French officials had reported on Friday that a ship resembling the Arctic Sea was spotted some 800 km near the island nation off West Africa.

The respected Sovfrakht maritime site said the

ship’s signal appeared on a tracking service about 0830 GMT (4:30 a.m. EDT) today in the Bay of Biscay, about 3,200 km north of Cape Verde. The site cautioned, however, that the Arctic Sea’s Automatic Identification System equipment may not be on the ship

itself anymore. The signal disappeared after about an hour, it said.

The Arctic Sea, carrying a load of timber, has been missing since July 28

after passing through the English Channel.

Crew members had reported that the ship was

attacked in Swedish

waters on July 24 by up to a dozen masked men, who they said tied them up, questioned them about drug trafficking, beat them up and searched the freighter before leaving.

Such an attack would have been unusual in European waters, and raised questions because it was not reported until the freighter had passed through Britain’s busy shipping lanes. There have

been fears that some of

the attackers might still

be aboard, or that the

ship came under attack a second time.

Radio messages from the freighter were later picked up along coasts of France and Portugal, but efforts to pinpoint the Arctic Sea’s whereabouts have been difficult in the vast Atlantic and with no communication from the ship’s 15-member Russian crew.

The Russian navy has directed all of its vessels in the Atlantic to search.

Cape Verde authorities said they had no new information today, though Russia’s ambassador to the country, Alexander Karpushin, said there was no confirmation the Arctic Sea had been found.

French Defence Ministry spokesman Capt. Jerome Baroe said Saturday it

is “extremely probable” that the ship is off Cape Verde. He said the French Marines operational centre in

Brest had received no information indicating the ship is off the French coast, and so has launched no search in that area.

The Arctic Sea, which left from Finland on July 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 off the Portuguese coast, spokesman Martin Selmayr said Friday, but he could not elaborate while the investigation was ongoing.

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.

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.

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.