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Russian court arrests suspected ship hijackers

A man identified as the suspected hijacker is handcuffed by Russian marines to a bus on the Cape Verde island of Sal. AP/Russian TV Channel
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Moscow court formally arrested eight people suspected of hijacking a freighter at the center of a monthlong high-seas mystery, according to Russian news agencies.

The Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea left Finland on July 21 carrying a load of timber but then appeared to vanish in the Atlantic. It was found two weeks after it had been scheduled to arrive in Algeria thousands of miles off course and long out of radio contact. Maltese and other international authorities later admitted they had been tracking the ship.

Interfax and RIA Novosti say the freighter's suspected hijackers — citizens of Russia, Latvia, Estonia and three without citizenship — were formally arrested Friday by Basmanny District Court in Moscow. No charges have yet been filed.

They denied guilt, claiming they were environmentalists who had sought refuge aboard the Arctic Sea after deserting their ship in a storm, the reports said.

"There was a gale and we were seeking refuge at the first vessel we saw," ITAR-Tass quoted suspect Dmitry Bartenyev as saying in court Friday.

Intrigue still swirls around the Arctic Sea affair.

More than a week after the Arctic Sea's departure from Finland, Swedish police said they had received a report that masked men had raided the ship in the Baltic Sea and beaten the crew before speeding off 12 hours later in an inflatable craft.

Secret cargo?
The 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.

On Aug 17, Russia's defense minister announced the ship had been found off West Africa and that it had been hijacked. A day later a Russian Navy warship mounted a rescue operation to retrieve the 15 Russian crew members and detain the eight suspected hijackers.

The perplexing manner in which the affair came to light, along with claims that news media were fed bogus information about the ship, raised suspicions among observers that the Arctic Sea may have been carrying a sensitive cargo.

Earlier, the Kremlin said the ship was en route to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, but federal investigators said it was drifting off Cape Verde.