Arctic Sea hijackers say they were held by ship's captain

MOSCOW, Aug 28, 2009 (AFP) - Eight men charged with hijacking the cargo ship the Arctic Sea have in turn accused its captain of detaining them, a Russian newspaper reported Friday, the latest twist in the ship's bizarre saga.

The Arctic Sea ship

Instead of hijacking the Arctic Sea, as investigators allege, the men sought shelter aboard it amid a storm and then were prevented from leaving, lawyer Omar Akhmedov told the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant.

Akhmedov, who is defending two of the men, also reiterated their claims that they were environmental activists rather than pirates.

"On July 24, my client and his friends took an inflatable motor boat from the Estonian port Parnu to practise using sea navigation equipment, but they were caught in a storm and asked to board the passing cargo ship," he told Kommersant.

"They could not leave the Arctic Sea because the cargo ship's captain did not notify coast guards of what had happened and refused to land them in any convenient European port, heading instead to the coast of west Africa."

The lawyer added that his clients were passionate environmentalists: "All those arrested had earlier joined forces over their desire to fight for the ecological purity of Baltic Sea."

The eight are charged with seizing the ship and its 15 Russian crewmen in the Baltic Sea on July 24 while posing as police.

Despite arresting the alleged pirates, Russian prosecutors have yet to fully explain the motive for the unprecendented hijacking, fuelling speculation that the Arctic Sea hid more than its stated cargo of timber.

Speculation has swirled that the ship may have held an illicit cargo of arms or even nuclear materials.

Russian officials have said that a preliminary search turned up nothing suspicious when the ship was recaptured near the Cape Verde archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean.

But they have vowed a more thorough search when the Arctic Sea reaches the Russian port of Novorossiisk in early September.

Eyebrows were also raised after Russia brought back the suspects -- citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Russia -- in three huge Ilyushin-76 military transport planes, when far smaller aircraft would have sufficed. 

Source: AFP

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