Image: Arctic Sea
Pekka Laakso  /  AFP - Getty Images
The cargo ship Arctic Sea is seen off the coast of Kotka, southern Finland, on Dec. 29, 2008.
updated 8/19/2009 4:38:59 PM ET 2009-08-19T20:38:59

A Russian Defense Ministry official insisted Wednesday that the hijackers of the Arctic Sea had demanded a ransom and threatened to blow up the Russian-crewed freighter if their demands were not met, state news agencies reported.

The ship's mysterious disappearance last month is the focus of an international investigation. Some security experts said they suspect the claims may be an effort to dress up a smuggling or trafficking operation as a piracy incident.

The suspicions have been fed by the limited information available from the government and the manner in which it has been released.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced earlier that the Russian navy had reached the ship off West Africa on Monday and arrested eight suspected hijackers without a shot being fired. Further details were provided Wednesday by state news agencies, citing an unnamed ministry official.

"Crew members confirm that a ransom demand was made by the hijackers and if their demands were not met the hijackers threatened to blow up the vessel," the ministry official reportedly said.

The crew said the hijackers were armed but threw their weapons overboard when the Russian naval frigate approached, the reports said.

Ministry spokesman Yuri Ivanov said he was unaware of the statements made to the state news agencies through other channels.

Mysterious trail
The timber-loaded Arctic Sea and its 15 Russian crew members left a Finnish port on July 21. More than a week later, Swedish police said they were investigating a report that masked men had raided the ship in the Baltic Sea and beaten the crew before speeding off 12 hours later in their inflatable craft.

The Maltese-flagged freighter gave no indication of any difficulties or change in its route during radio contact while passing through the English Channel on July 28. Signals from the ship's tracking device were picked up off the French coast late the next day, but that was the last confirmed trace of it until Monday.

The ship had been due to dock in Algeria on Aug. 4 with its cargo of timber worth $1.8 million.

A Russian insurance company, Renaissance Insurance, said it received a ransom demand for $1.5 million on Aug. 3.

Company Vice President Vladimir Dushin said the call came from a man speaking English who said he was an intermediary for the hijackers.

"He said if we informed the media or the authorities they would starting shooting the hostages and double the ransom," Dushin told The Associated Press. He said the man used a voice-changing technology to conceal his identity.

"Of course, we didn't pay anything, and we gave all the information to the relevant authorities," he said.

Finnish investigators also have said there was a ransom demand.

"We have evidence that a ransom note was made to the ship's operator," Detective Superintendent Rabbe von Hertzen told The Associated Press in Helsinki.

"According to the information we gathered during our preliminary investigation and the subsequent information we have received from Russian authorities, yes, it was a hijacking," said von Hertzen, who heads the Finnish group of investigators working together with their counterparts from Sweden and Malta.

'I believe this very little'
But some maritime and security experts said they doubted the ransom claim.

"This business about the ransom, I believe this very little," said Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfracht.

He and others have speculated that the freighter was carrying an undeclared cargo, possibly weapons or drugs.

Voitenko said he did not suspect the Russian government of smuggling; it was more likely a well-connected business clan.

Tarmo Kouts, a former commander of the Estonian defense forces, said Russia's version of the hijacking raised many questions.

"This whole story looks so far-fetched that it would be naive to believe Russia's official version," Kouts was quoted as saying Wednesday in the Estonian newspaper Postimees.

Security boosted
The Arctic Sea 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.

Ivan Boiko, the deputy director of Solchart Arkhangelsk, said he expected the ship's timber to be delivered to the Algerian port of Bejaia by a new crew.

A spokesman for the port in Bejaia said the Arctic Sea was expected in the coming days and security measures were being stepped up for the ship's arrival. The spokesman was not authorized to be named for security reasons.

Boiko said he didn't know the current location of the ship, which was under the Russian navy's control.

Russia said four of the detained hijackers were citizens of Estonia, while the others were from Russia and Latvia.

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

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