1. 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.
Thus began one of the most perplexing maritime mysteries of recent times. Nine days after the bogus police raid, the Arctic Sea’s AIS was switched off as it sailed towards Portugal. The ship was said to have vanished.
The gunmen demanded a ransom and threatened to execute the crew if security services were alerted. But crewmen’s families and the ship owner appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev, who ordered the navy into action. The guided-missile frigate Ladny was sent to track down the Arctic Sea.
The response fuelled reports that the ship was carrying a secret cargo. Suspicion mounted when sources close to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, claimed that Israel had tipped- off Russia that the vessel was smuggling missiles to Iran.
The ship was finally intercepted near the African islands of Cape Verde, 24 days after being seized. Eight men from Latvia, Estonia and Russia were arrested and flown in a military transport to a Moscow jail.
A flurry of diplomatic activity between Russia and Israel followed. President Shimon Peres visited Moscow the next day and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, made a secret trip to the Kremlin.
Speculation about the ship’s supposed weapons cargo centred on whether the hijackers had been set up by Mossad or Russia’s secret service, allowing the Kremlin to take control of the cargo while claiming to have foiled an act of piracy. But the Russians denied that the Arctic Sea had been carrying missiles.
In an attempt to piece together the puzzle, The Sunday Times has spoken at length to six crew members on the understanding that they would remain anonymous: they could face up to seven years in jail if they divulge crucial evidence.
In inquiries in seven countries, this newspaper also talked to key figures including the ship’s owner and insurer, relatives and lawyers of the alleged pirates, maritime and military sources and individuals who took part in ransom negotiations.
The detained men are expected to plead not guilty when they stand trial next year on charges of staging the first act of piracy in European waters in centuries. They face up to 20 years behind bars.
They claim to be peaceful environmentalists who were rescued by the Arctic Sea when their dinghy was caught in a storm. The detailed account given to The Sunday Times by the crew offers a different picture. It is also the key to the prosecutors’ case.
Seated around an oval table in Archangel, a bleak Russian port, the six seamen smoked and became animated as they gave their accounts of the voyage. They ridiculed suggestions made by the alleged pirates that they had drunk vodka and sunbathed together.
Until the Ladny caught up with their ship off the African coast on August 16, the gunmen had worn ski-masks and gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. They communicated with walkie-talkies. They had been armed at all times and kept the crew locked up in groups of three or four. They allowed the cook out three times a day to prepare meals.
“Once when I was allowed out after a few days, I moved the small magnetic ship we use to show our location,” a crew member said. “I had a pretty good idea of where we were and did so automatically. One of the gunmen became very angry. He dragged me outside, threw me to the ground and fired a gun next to my head. ‘Do that again, and I’ll kill you,’ he said.”
Similar treatment was meted out to Zaretski, the captain, shortly after he sent his text message to Solchart in Archangel. The text puzzled staff. They called back and e-mailed the ship to ask for an explanation thereby alerting the gunmen that the alarm had been raised.
Furious, the hijackers threatened the captain at gunpoint, firing another shot that narrowly missed his head and punched a hole in the cabin’s steel wall.
Viktor Matveev, the Arctic Sea’s Russian owner, was told about the text and tried to raise his captain. Matveev, 47, who moved to Finland 15 years ago, runs Solchart from a smart office overlooking the Gulf of Finland.
Solchart owns three cargo ships and manages a further three, all carrying timber from Finland to North Africa. “Zaretski’s text was very strange. How were we to know the ship had been taken at gunpoint?” Matveev said. “Had we suspected a hijack we would have immediately alerted the coastguard to mount a rescue. Instead I started phoning the ship and eventually got through to Zaretski.”
At gunpoint, the captain told his boss that the ship had been boarded by the Swedish drugs squad. Matveev failed to realise that the captain was speaking under duress when he said they had left the ship after 12 hours.
On July 28 at 1.52pm, the ship radioed the Dover coastguard, which noticed nothing unusual. “There were two armed men standing next to me as I made contact, so I acted as natural as I could,” a crew member said.
It was on August 2 that the ship’s AIS went dead and Zaretski failed to send his usual daily report. The same day Matveev was contacted on a satellite phone by a man speaking fluent English, whose voice was altered with a scrambler.
“It was clear I was speaking to a criminal,” he recalled. “I didn’t link it to the Arctic Sea and slammed the phone down. We soon realised it had come from the Arctic Sea .”
Later, Solchart’s operations manager phoned Matveev. The same man had called to say he would shoot a crew member if Matveev refused to speak to him. In the next call the man threatened Matveev’s daughter, Katya, who works in Solchart’s Helsinki office.
He claimed the ship had been taken over by a group of 25 “soldiers” and was in the hands of a big organisation out to demonstrate its power. He also warned that he had accomplices monitoring Matveev’s family. The shipowner immediately sent them to Moscow .
The caller is believed to have been Dmitry Savin, one of the alleged pirates. An ethnic Russian from Latvia , Savin, 34, who was known on board as “Alpha”, had been employed until early this year by a large Estonian corporation as head of an oil and chemicals shipping venture. With him on board was Vitaly Lepin, his half-brother, who previously worked as a cook.
“We had no reason to question Savin’s background and he did his job properly until eight months ago when we began to have several questions of a financial nature,” said a spokesman for his former employer. “We wound up the company he ran and decided against starting a criminal investigation against him because it was too time-consuming.”
Matveev and the man thought to be Savin spoke dozens of times during the crisis, but both Russians always stuck to English.
During another call, a recording of which is thought now to be with investigators – the Arctic Sea caller demanded a 1.5 million euro ransom from Matveev.
“He never named the total figure, just told me that 60,000 for each “soldier” seemed reasonable. He never got into the details of how this money should be paid. I got the impression that he had no clear plan and was making it up as he went along. He seemed unsure of what do to next. It was strange as I was always under the impression that I was in control, not him.”
The same scrambled English voice also called the ship’s Russian insurer, and threatened to start killing the crew members unless a 1.5 million euro ransom was paid.
Savin has told investigators that he was hired by Vladimir Yarovoi, a Russian he described as a wealthy businessman. According to Savin, Yarovoi was setting up an environmental group called GreenHouse and wanted him to monitor waste dumping in the Baltic. Savin says he was promised ¤4,000 a month. Extensive efforts by The Sunday Times to find Yarovoi have failed. It remains unclear if he exists.
“Dmitry was always well paid, said Savin’s wife Gunta. “He used to get about 4000 euros a month and his work was always linked to the sea. Recently he was constantly looking for a job. I have no idea how he ended up on the Arctic Sea but it’s absurd to think that he could have taken a ship hostage. He’s very responsible.”
Savin appears to have been the most experienced seafarer among those arrested. Dmitry Bartenev, a 42-year-old unemployed seaman from Estonia , also claims to have been carrying out environmental work. Three other alleged pirates are friends of Bartenev. One was a builder.
“He was out of work for a while and simply told us that he’d been hired for a new job,” said Bartenev’s brother Alexei from Estonia . “He’s had some trouble with the law before but it was trivial stuff like drink driving. I find it very hard to believe that he’d get involved in something like this.”
The crew members said that a day after seizing the ship, the gunmen prepared its lifeboat. “They put food inside and we thought they were planning to leave,” a crewman said. “I don’t think their plan was to stay long. Something must have gone wrong.”
Savin’s wife Gunta last spoke to him on August 17, shortly after the frigate had caught up with the Arctic Sea . He told her the Russians had threatened to open fire, that he was unsure of his fate, and that he loved her.
The crew said that when the Ladny first made radio contact with the Arctic Sea , Savin sought to fool its Russian navy officers by claiming the ship was North Korean – the hijackers had also painted over Solchart’s emblem on the deck.
Contrary to official statements, the Arctic Sea had never vanished, however. Matveev said last week that Solchart had activated a back-up signal identifying its position. Nato tracked it and satellite imagery was also used.
“They knew the game was up when the Ladny arrived,” a crew member said. “The ship had only two days’ fuel left and nowhere to hide. That’s when they took their masks off, threw their weapons into the sea and surrendered.”
The crew dismissed the claims that the Arctic Sea had been smuggling weapons loaded during repairs in the Russian port of Kaliningrad . They said they would have been discovered when the ship docked in Finland to take on its cargo of timber.
There has been speculation that missiles could have been concealed in the freighter’s ballast tanks. Access to the tanks however is very tight and to secretly remove them, the Ladny would have had to first unload or dump the Arctic Sea ’s cargo out at sea.
“There was no secret cargo,” insisted one crew member. “We’d all be in jail if we’d been caught smuggling weapons to Iran .”
Israeli sources nevertheless insisted last week that Mossad had alerted Moscow to a secret cargo. Experts said the vessel might have been carrying weapon parts that could easily have been hidden.
The secret cargo theory should not be entirely ruled out until more light is shed on events surrounding the Arctic Sea and the men accused of seizing it – something many doubt will ever happen.
However, the truth behind how an ageing cargo ship stacked up with wood planks became embroiled in an international maritime mystery may be more mundane, if not less murky.
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.”
COURTESY: The Times