Missing ship headed into Atlantic: Maltese officials

A merchant cargo ship that disappeared off the coast of France two weeks ago is headed out into the Atlantic Ocean, maritime officials said, reinforcing the likelihood that it has been hijacked.
Russian warships were ordered to join the hunt for the Arctic Sea, a 4000-tonne bulk carrier with a 15-strong Russian crew that went missing shortly after passing through the Dover Strait between France and Britain late last month.
The Maltese-registered, Finnish-chartered vessel was sailing from Finland to the Algerian port of Bejaia, where it was due to have docked on Aug. 4 with a $1.3-million (about R10.4 million) load of timber.
“It would appear that the ship has not approached the Straits of Gibraltar, which indicates that the ship is headed out into the Atlantic Ocean,” the Malta Maritime Authority, which has been tracking the vessel, said in a statement.
If the vessel has been seized by hijackers it is possible they intend to use it as an unregistered “ghost ship”, maritime experts said, or pirates may be trying to test security levels in northern European waters, some of the world’s busiest.
Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency said the Arctic Sea last made radio contact on July 28 as it entered the Dover Strait. Shortly afterwards its transponder, which transmits an electronic location signal, was switched off.
The vessel’s movements were last recorded on the AisLive ship tracking system off the coast of northern France on July 30, although it has also been spotted off Portugal.
The Malta Maritime Authority said it received reports it was boarded by men posing as police in Swedish waters on July 24.
The vessel was boarded by “eight to twelve persons allegedly masked and wearing uniforms bearing the word ‘police’ and armed with guns and pistols,” the Maltese authority said.
Crew members were assaulted, tied, gagged and blindfolded and some were seriously hurt, it said. They were also questioned about drug trafficking by those posing as police.
Swedish authorities have told Maltese officials that no Swedish law enforcement agencies were involved.
Concerned for the crew, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered Russian naval ships operating in the Atlantic to join the hunt for the ship, Itar Tass news agency reported.
“Wild speculation”
An official at London-based watchdog the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Cyrus Mody, said: “The vessel could have illegally deviated, it could have been hijacked and pirates are taking it to another location or it could be being used as a phantom ship, where its identity is changed.
“We just have to wait to see if there is a ransom demand.”
Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, managing director of Dryad Maritime, an intelligence company specialising in piracy, said: “It is more likely that it would be an organised criminal gang that has chosen to target that vessel for a specific purpose.”
John Dalby, chief executive of MRM, which provides security personnel to merchant vessels, believed the ship was hijacked to gauge maritime security.
“It was purely a dress rehearsal,” he said. “This was an incursion designed to see what could be got away with, to test the authorities’ reactions.”
Seafarers’ union Nautilus International said the incident highlighted “glaring gaps” in security and that the shipping industry was the “Achilles heel of global security”.
“It is alarming that, in the 21st century, a ship can apparently be commandeered by hijackers and sail through the world’s busiest waterway with no alarm being raised and no naval vessel going to intercept it,” general secretary Mark Dickinson said.
Other experts were doubtful the ship had been seized.
UK Chamber of Shipping’s Jeremy Harrison said of possible piracy: “This is speculation running wild. Why would you attack and seize a small-to-medium sized cargo ship carrying wood of all things?”

Pic: Somali pirates