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Finnish police say a ransom demand has been made for a missing Russian-manned cargo vessel, the Arctic Sea.
The demand - which has not been confirmed as genuine - was put to the ship's Finnish owners, Finland's National Bureau of Investigation said.
A Finnish radio station said it had been told the 15 crew members' lives would be at risk if it was not paid.
Mystery surrounds the location of the Arctic Sea, last sighted in the Bay of Biscay on 30 July.
The 4,000-tonne Maltese-flagged vessel, which had been carrying timber, went off radar after passing through the English Channel.
A recent sighting off Africa's Cape Verde islands is still to be confirmed.
There has been huge speculation over the reason for the ship's disappearance, ranging from pirates to a mafia dispute to a commercial quarrel.
The matter is being jointly investigated by Finnish, Maltese and Swedish police.
A Finnish police spokesman, Mikko Paatero, said that he was unable at this stage to say whether the ransom demand made to the ship's owners, Solchart Management, was genuine.
"The police cannot really speculate," he said. "We need to base our investigation on existing criminal reports, and in this case there are reports of hijacking and aggravated blackmail."
Markku Ranta-Aho, of the National Bureau of Investigation, told Finland's YLE national radio that the demand was for "a largish amount of money".
He said he would not give further details or say where the ship might be located for fear of endangering the crew.
Cape Verde officials say they think the ship is 400 nautical miles (740km) off one of the islands.
But the Russian ambassador to Cape Verde, Alexander Karpushin, said he had not been officially informed of any sighting and told Russia's RAI news agency the information was "not true".
A source linked to the Cape Verde coastguard told AFP news agency the Arctic Sea was outside its territorial waters.
The coastguard was informing maritime officials about the ship's movements, the source said, adding: "When the ship enters our jurisdiction, we will decide in consultation with our partners what actions to take."
Some reports have put the ship 400 nautical miles north of the Cape Verdean island of Sao Vicente.
French intelligence said it had found a ship matching the Arctic Sea's description in the area. The Portuguese military would not confirm one of its planes had flown over the vessel.
Last known contact
Carrying timber reportedly worth $1.8m (£1.1m), the Arctic Sea sailed from Finland and had been scheduled to dock in the Algerian port of Bejaia on 4 August.
The crew reported being boarded by up to 10 armed men as the ship sailed through the Baltic Sea on 24 July, but the intruders were reported to have left the vessel on an inflatable boat after 12 hours.
There are also reports of the ship being attacked a second time off the Portuguese coast. However the ship's operators said they had no knowledge of the incident and Portugal said the ship was never in its territorial waters.
The last known contact with the crew was when the Arctic Sea reported to British maritime authorities as it passed through the Dover Strait.
On Friday, European Union Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr said: "From information currently available it would seem that these acts, such as they have been reported, have nothing in common with 'traditional' acts of piracy or armed robbery at sea."
Police in Finland say the owner of the missing freighter "Arctic Sea” has received a demand for a ransom, suggesting the involvement of pirates. Meanwhile, the ship's location is still unknown.
The Finnish-operated, Maltese-flagged vessel with 15 Russian crew members aboard disappeared three weeks ago.
On Saturday, Markku Ranta-Aho of Finland's National Bureau of Investigation told YLE – the Finnish broadcasting company – that a ransom demand was made to the Helsinki-based shipping company. He added that it was for a “significant” sum of money.
French marines have refuted earlier reports that the vessel had been detected in the Bay of Biscay. They said the emergency signal picked up by satellites actually belonged to three Russian Black Sea warships that had been sent to look for the missing freighter.
According to the Russian Maritime Bulletin, the ship's Automatic Identification System (AIS) briefly started working again at 8:30am GMT Saturday, showing the vessel is in the Bay of Biscay. The journal also says there's no way to know for sure if the positioning device is even onboard the ship.
Mikhail Voitenko, chief editor of the Bulletin, cited marinetraffic.com, a source which lets you see vessel positions based on AIS data, on which the Arctic Sea appeared for a short time.
“I know, and I’ve been talking to specialists and technicians, it’s possible to fake the signal,” Voitenko said.
Earlier, France’s Defense Ministry announced that the missing “Arctic Sea” had been found near the Cape Verde Islands. However, Russia's embassy on the islands denied that the report was true.
It seems the real story of the vessel is still shrouded in mystery, and new theories over its disappearance – including pirates, a dispute between smugglers and even a government conspiracy – continue to pop up.
BRUSSELS, August 16 (RIA Novosti) - Russia and NATO have exhaustive information on the Arctic Sea cargo vessel, missing in the Atlantic since late July, the country's envoy to the alliance has said.
"All the exhaustive information, which we do have and which is most likely objective, is instantly reported to the [Russian] naval headquarters," Dmitry Rogozin said late on Saturday, but declined to comment on the vessel's whereabouts.
The tracking device aboard the Russian-crewed Arctic Sea, carrying timber, was briefly reactivated earlier on Saturday showing the vessel to be located in the Atlantic's Bay of Biscay near France's La Rochelle port, according to Sovfrakht, a Russian maritime journal.
"As partners, we [Russia and NATO] are currently facing the sole task of sending to the right location and at the right time the forces dispatched by the Russian president," Rogozin said.
Russia's Dmitry Medvedev ordered the country's Navy on Wednesday to launch the search for the Arctic Sea. The frigate Ladny was heading toward Cape Verde in the western Atlantic on Friday, according to the Russian ambassador in the former Portuguese colony.
The ship last made radio contact with British coastguards on July 28. According to Interpol the ship was briefly seized in Swedish waters of the Baltic Sea by masked men claiming to be police on July 24. Reports state that after 12 hours the men left the ship and the Arctic Sea resumed its voyage.
Some media have speculated the ship could have been targeted because it was carrying an "unknown cargo" in addition to timber. The ship operator has called the reports "rubbish."
In an interview with Russia's Vesti 24 television channel, Rogozin signaled earlier on Saturday that he was not authorized to disclose the details of the operation.
"The operation is sort of in full swing. It is being developed successfully, ...unfortunately, nothing more can be said now... This is too serious, concerning the life, safety and health of our citizens, that is why we will have to be satisfied with the information we have at our joint disposal for the time being," Rogozin said.
Reports came on Saturday that a ransom demand had been issued to the Finnish owners of the missing vessel.
Russia says it has found a missing cargo vessel near the Cape Verde islands and retrieved its Russian crew.
Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said that the 15-member crew had been taken on board a Russian navy vessel. They were in good condition, he said.
The Finnish-owned Arctic Sea went off radar after passing through the English Channel with its cargo of timber.
Speculation over the cause of its disappearance had ranged from pirates to a mafia dispute to a commercial row.
The Arctic Sea was found at 0100 Monday (2100 GMT Sunday) 300 miles (480 km) off Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean, Tass news agency quoted Mr Serdyukov as telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
"The crew have been transferred to another ship. They are being interrogated now in order to find out what happened," Mr Serdyukov said.
The sailors were "alive, healthy and are not under armed guard", the agency quoted him as saying.
Malta's Maritime Security Committee confirmed that the vessel was in the hands of the Russian military. Further clarification in the case was being sought, it said in a statement.
Carrying timber reportedly worth $1.8m (£1.1m), the 4,000-tonne Maltese-flagged vessel sailed from Finland and had been scheduled to dock in the Algerian port of Bejaia on 4 August.
The crew reported having been boarded by up to 10 armed men as the ship sailed through the Baltic Sea on 24 July, but the intruders were reported to have left the vessel on an inflatable boat after 12 hours.
The last known contact with the crew was when the Arctic Sea reported to British maritime authorities in Dover as it passed through the English Channel.
It was then sighted in the Bay of Biscay on 30 July.
On Saturday, police in Finland said a ransom demand had been made, but emphasised that they could not confirm its authenticity.
The Russian frigate Ladny has freed the “Arctic Sea” cargo ship in the Atlantic without firing a shot and arrested eight alleged hijackers, according to the country’s Defense Ministry.
“The hijackers boarded the ‘Arctic Sea’, threatened the crew with weapons and demanded that their orders be followed,” RIA Novosti news agency quoted Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
Serdyukov reported to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that the hijackers ordered the cargo ship's crew to shut down all communications and navigation equipment, and in this condition the "Arctic Sea" was sailing toward the African continent.
The eight detainees are from Estonia, Latvia and Russia.
Lost ship found – mystery remains
The Russian crew of a cargo ship “Arctic Sea”, which has been missing for almost three weeks, is on the way home. Their disappearance puzzled experts and officials across Europe.
Dark and unpredictable as the waters that lent the ship its name, the “Arctic Sea” story is still full of unknowns.
The Finnish-owned vessel went off radar after passing through the English Channel, reportedly carrying timber. What happened afterwards remains a mystery.
“It is possible that there was something put in the hold before it was loaded with the timber,” believes John Burnett, maritime and underwater security consultant.
“There could be anything from chemical, biological, nuclear, weapon, or, its unlikely to be drugs because it was going to Algeria and you wouldn’t take drugs to Algeria – you would take druigs to Europe. So we won’t know for a while, until the government announces what they found”.
Speculation over the ship’s disappearance ranged from pirates, to a mafia dispute, to a commercial row. Some in Russia even believe the ship was seized by none other than NATO forces.
Mikhail Voitenko, Editor-in-Chief of Russian Maritime Bulletin, says he’s absolutely positive that NATO countries have been involved in this incident.
“Just think about it. How can you seize a vessel in the Baltic Sea? What kind of operation would that entail? It’s not uncontrolled Somali waters we’re talking about. So I, and many other industry experts, believe it was some sort of special operation”.
Meanwhile, in the Russian city of Archangelsk where all 15 crewmembers come from, their families are still on edge.
Aleksandr Deshchenya, a sailor himself, hasn’t heard from his son Sergey since the end of July. But at least he now knows his son is alive.
“I knew from the start that, while transporting timber, a vessel just can’t drown without a trace. Even if the ship had sunk, timber would have been floating in the ocean”.
Having been nicknamed the Flying Russian, the ship has been spotted all around the Atlantic over the past three weeks. But unlike the mythical Dutch sailors, the Russian crew is no longer doomed to endlessly furrow the seas.
None of the crew was injured in the rescue operation, the minister said.