The controversial MV Arctic Sea
It had been an uneventful night for the Russian sailor steering the cargo ship Arctic Sea across the Baltic when, at 2.10am, he was confronted by eight masked men. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles and handguns, they forced him into the vessel’s living quarters. They swiftly tied up the rest of the crew in their cabins.
Speaking English, the gunmen claimed to be Swedish drugs squad officers acting on a tip-off that the ship was smuggling heroin. One had “Polis” on his uniform. Their accents, however, were east European.
“They tied us with duct tape and plastic flex, gagged us and confiscated our mobiles,” one of the sailors recalled. “Three crewmen who put up a fight were beaten. A young cadet on his first trip had his front teeth smashed by a gunman who hit him with the butt of his machinegun.”
The intruders had boarded from a rubber dinghy equipped with a global positioning system for navigation and electronics capable of detecting the Arctic Sea’s automatic identification system (AIS), which marked its position. “It quickly became apparent that we’d been seized by criminals. We’d no idea why,” the sailor said.
One crewman locked up with Sergei Zaretski, the captain, had hidden a spare mobile phone. A few hours later, Zaretski sent a cryptic text to Archangel, the crew’s home town, in Russia’s far north.
It was received by a local representative of Solchart, the Russian, Finnish-based owner of the Arctic Sea, which was bound for Algeria with a cargo of timber worth £1.2m. “Locked up in the cabins. Don’t know where we are heading or what they’ve found,” the text said.
It has been suggested that the alleged pirates might have been hired as part of an insurance scam. The ship and its cargo could have been sold by the gunmen and the insurer would have been liable for $4m. Matveev, who has lost ¤700,000 from the hijack, laughed off this theory. “I’ve a very good reputation,” he said. “It’s ludicrous to think I would get involved in something like this.”
In the eyes of Russian shipping insiders a commercial dispute seems more likely. Last year Matveev ended a contract with Aquaship, a Latvian company which was responsible for the technical management and maintenance of the Arctic Sea and the other cargo ships owned and managed by Matveev’s Solchart – which now runs its own maintenance on the vessels.
“Commercial shipowners often use frontmen and it’s not always clear who is the real owner,” said one Russian expert, who emphasised that Baltic owners have been badly hit by the credit crunch. “What if there was some kind of dispute?” But Matveev and AquaShip said they had parted amicably.
Matveev – who since the crisis has taken up smoking again and has been approached by a Hollywood producer interested in the ship’s story – suspects the hijacking is linked to an organised crime group in Latvia but insists he is still in the dark as to its motives.
“No version makes sense to me,” he said last week. “It’s such a crazy act, so clearly doomed to fail, that I just can’t get my head round it.”
The Arctic Sea is now docked in Malta but the mystery is far from over. “What if this was really the first act of piracy in European waters?” asked one of the crew. “If we hadn’t managed to send the text message, nobody would have known we’d been seized and the pirates could have made it to Africa unnoticed. What if a bunch of small-time criminals thought they could make a quick buck? It’s no less crazy a theory than an international weapons conspiracy.”
“The only people to really know the truth are the pirates themselves. Until they confess we are unlikely to ever know.”
1. Was a Weapons Cargo?
Arctic Sea was actually carrying secret arms cargo. Mossad tipped off Russians. So Kremlin sent warship to track it down and treated incident with secrecy. Ship carrying hard- to- conceal arms on board. It is impossible to remove them without unloading cargo at sea.
2. Was An Act Of Piracy?
Ship was actually hijacked for ransom. Alleged pirates demanded €1.5m. This represents first act of piracy in European waters in centuries. How did they think they could get away with it?
3. Was A Product Of Insurance Scam?
Ship taken to cash in on insurance premium. She was insured for $, if ship sunk or vanished. But, plot portends damage to ship owner’s reputation.
4. Was An Outright Case Of Theft Of Ship?
Pirates wanted to sell ship in rogue country where it could be re-registered. But alleged pirates caught off coast of Africa. They then asked crew value of cargo. It is difficult to set up without good local contacts.
5. Was A Product Of High Level Commercial Rivalry?
Owners fell out with a business partner, because ship’s owners terminated contract with a maintenance company. His is against both organisations claim to have parted amicably.