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Russia: No suspicious cargo on mystery ship

Image: Arctic Sea
The cargo ship Arctic Sea is seen here off the coast of Kotka, southern Finland, on Dec. 29, 2008.Pekka Laakso / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russia moved to quash speculation that a freighter embroiled in a high-seas mystery might have been carrying sensitive cargo, saying Tuesday that an initial search of the Arctic Sea last week uncovered nothing suspicious.

But the Foreign Ministry statement — which also said the Arctic Sea's captain had falsely claimed it was a North Korean ship headed from Cuba to Sierra Leone — appeared unlikely to end the questions about the vessel and its voyage.

The statement was issued just hours after a report quoted Russia's top investigator as saying it was possible the ship was carrying more than just timber when it left Finland last month with an all-Russian crew.

The Foreign Ministry said no suspicious cargo was found when the ship was searched after being intercepted Aug. 17 in the Atlantic off West Africa, but that a more thorough search is planned.

"There remain many 'gray areas' that should be illuminated chiefly by the investigation that has just begun," the ministry said in the statement.

The developments have sparked speculation that the Maltese-flagged ship could have been carrying a secret cargo that somebody wanted to keep under wraps. Suspicions have been heightened by the involvement of the Russian navy, the slow trickle of information and claims that news media were fed bogus information about the ship.

A tale of pirates
The Arctic Sea left Finland on July 21 with a load of timber bound for Algeria, but then seemed to vanish in the Atlantic.

Russian officials said a Russian warship had "freed" the freighter from hijackers last week without any shots being fired.

Eight people who were aboard — including citizens of Russia, Latvia and Estonia — have been jailed in Moscow on suspicion of crimes including piracy. The suspects have denied guilt, claiming they were environmentalists who sought refuge aboard the Arctic Sea after deserting their own vessel in a storm.

Russian Investigative Bastrykin is quoted as saying in an interview to be published Wednesday as making what would be the first official suggestion that the cargo might have been sensitive.

"We do not rule out the possibility that they might have been carrying not only timber," Bastrykin is quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying in the interview with government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. "This is why we need to examine the vessel — so that there are no dark spots in this story."

Bastrykin, whose agency could not be reached for comment late Tuesday, was apparently referring to a more painstaking search that the Foreign Ministry said would be conducted in a port along the route of the Arctic Sea. It gave no specific location or date.

While Bastrykin raised questions about the ship's cargo, he insisted the ship was indeed hijacked and sought to play down speculation of a cover-up. "There are no particular secrets in this story," Interfax quoted him as saying.

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

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 on July 29, and a day later, the Russian navy frigate Ladny mounted an operation to retrieve the 15 Russian crew members.

Some of suspects have reportedly contended that Russia has no jurisdiction in the case, and some aspects of the Foreign Ministry statement seemed aimed to justify their prosecution in Russia — as well as the Russian naval operation.

The mention of North Korea and other volatile nations, meanwhile, may only add to speculation.

The ministry said that, when the ship was intercepted, its captain claimed it was the North Korean vessel Chendin-2, and was headed from Havana to Sierra Leone with a cargo of palm wood.

It said North Korea had asserted that was impossible, saying the Chendin-2 was docked at an Angolan port at the time. The Russian navy's search of the ship "confirmed the suggestion that it was really the Arctic Sea," the statement said.