Image: Russian-manned ship
Pekka Laakso  /  AP
The Arctic Sea, seen here in December, was carrying $1.8 million worth of timber when it vanished in European waters.
updated 8/14/2009 4:55:18 PM ET 2009-08-14T20:55:18

A Russian-manned cargo ship that vanished in the Atlantic last month has been found near Cape Verde, the French Defense Ministry said Friday.

Ministry spokesman Capt. Jerome Baroe said Cape Verde coast guards confirmed the Arctic Sea was discovered Friday afternoon about 520 miles off the former Portuguese colony off the West African coast.

The Arctic Sea has been missing since it passed through the English Channel on July 28.

The Maltese-flagged freighter sent radio messages as it sailed south along the coasts of France and Portugal, but then all contact was lost.

France was involved in search efforts together with several other countries.

'We do not have a specific position'
NATO spokesman Cmdr. Chris Davies at NATO's maritime headquarters in England said NATO was monitoring the situation but was not directly involved in the search.

"We do not have a specific position," he said. NATO began watching developments after the ship reported coming under attack in the Baltic Sea because it was an unusual situation, he said.

The crew had reported that the ship was boarded June 24 in Swedish waters by up to a dozen masked men, who tied them up, questioned them about drug trafficking, beat them and carried out an extensive search 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.

A second attack?
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.

Video: Mystery on the high seas The Portuguese Foreign Ministry said, however, that the ship was never in Portuguese territorial waters.

The ship's Russian operator, Solchart Arkhangelsk, said it had no information about a possible second attack.

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.

The ship had been due to make port Aug. 4 in Algeria with a $1.8 million haul of timber.

The Malta Maritime Authority said the Arctic Sea "has not approached the Straits of Gibraltar, which indicates that the ship headed out in the Atlantic Ocean."

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.

Three main types of piracy
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.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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