A ransom has been sought for a Russian-crewed cargo vessel that vanished last month, officials said Saturday, as the mystery surrounding the ship deepened despite it being spotted off Cape Verde.
The ransom demand was made to the Finnish owners of the Arctic Sea, Finnish police said, with the vessel's disappearance having set off an intense search by the Russian military and deep concern over its fate.
"Yes, it is true that there has been a demand for ransom, which is money, and the demand has been made to the company which owns the ship, Solchart Management in Finland," Finnish Detective Chief Superintendent Jan Nyholm told AFP.
He said Finnish authorities were keeping more than 20 countries informed of developments linked to the probe, but declined to provide further details and he could not comment on where the ship was located.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times Deutschland reported that the ransom demand amounted to 1.5 million dollars (1.05 million euros), without citing its source.
However, the newspaper said the figure had been "confirmed" but "with reservations" and quoted observers as saying the demand seemed "absurd" due to the small size of the sum sought for a cargo ship.
The ship's owners could not be reached for comment on the ransom demand, but its director had earlier expressed worry for the crew, saying he did not know where the ship was and that he had been unable to contact those on board.
|This undated picture released by Maritime Bulletin Sovfracht on August 12, 2009 shows the Arctic Sea cargo ship at an unknown location.|
Officials in Cape Verde and France said Friday the ship had been spotted off the archipelago off the coast of west Africa, but Russia has not confirmed the sighting.
A Cape Verdean coastguard source had said the ship was some 400 nautical miles (740 kilometres) off one of the islands, outside its territorial waters.
The French navy's information service said Saturday it was likely the ship remained in the same area and a Russian warship seemed headed towards it.
"A small Russian frigate that was located in the Mediterranean is currently headed toward the south, probably to meet up with the Arctic Sea," said French Commander Jerome Baroe.
However, a Cape Verdean military source said later that the ship may have already moved south of the islands because it was travelling at an estimated speed of between 15 and 20 knots.
The source added that Russia and NATO were following the ship's progression by satellite and other means.
Moscow's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said late Saturday that Russia and NATO were coordinating efforts to search for the missing ship.
"All information that is complete and most likely objective, is instantly sent to Russian navy headquarters" from Brussels, Rogozin was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency, adding that "our most recent exchange was today and it will continue tomorrow morning."
He had said earlier that Russia would not give out details of the search for the time being in the interests of the search operation and the crew's well-being.
The vessel had been due to arrive in Algeria on August 4 with a cargo of sawn Norwegian timber worth more than a million euros (1.42 million dollars).
A European Union spokesman has said it appeared the ship, which disappeared after passing through the English Channel in late July, had been attacked twice, but not in "traditional" acts of piracy.
Swedish police have already said the ship was hijacked in the Baltic Sea on July 24, when masked men claiming to be anti-drugs police boarded, tied up the crew and searched the vessel. The men reportedly left after about 12 hours.
Pirate attacks in European waters are extremely rare, and the disappearance on one of the world's main shipping routes has led to intense speculation over what may have occurred.
Moscow's ambassador to Cape Verde Alexander Karpushin has said the Cape Verdean military has not officially informed him of the spotting.
He also said searches for the ship were continuing with Russian ships, submarines and satellites "and other means of detection" but declined to provide details on where they were taking place.
Experts have debated whether pirates, a mafia quarrel or a commercial dispute were behind the disappearance of the Maltese-flagged ship, which left Finland on July 23.