A cargo ship whose mysterious disappearance sparked a massive hunt has been found and its crew transferred to a Russian naval vessel, Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said as Cape Verde confirmed the crew were heading home.
The Arctic Sea was located around 2100 GMT Sunday about 300 miles (483 kilometres) from the Cape Verde archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, Serdyukov said Monday, after intensive search efforts in the past 10 days which saw rare coordination between Russia and NATO.
"The crew has been transferred aboard our anti-submarine ship," Serdyukov told President Dmitry Medvedev in a meeting that was broadcast on Russian state television.
He said all members of the Russian crew were "alive, healthy and are not under armed guard."
Serdyukov made no mention however of the current whereabouts of the Arctic Sea itself and his announcement did little to clear up the mystery over what happened in recent weeks to the Maltese-flagged, Russian cargo ship which was feared to have been hijacked.
"Debriefing is under way to clarify all aspects of the disappearance and loss of signal from this vessel," Serdyukov said.
"In the coming hours we will explain what happened with it, why communications with it were lost, why it changed its itinerary."
The crew was heading for the island of Sal where it would be put on a Moscow-bound plane, the authorities in the Cape Verde capital Praia announced late Monday.
Cape Verde's foreign ministry said in a statement that "in agreement with the Russian authorities, the crew of the Arctic Sea (about 15 people) has been transferred to a navy ship and is heading for the island of Sal where a Russian aircraft is waiting to take them to Russia."
|This 2008 photo shows the Arctic Sea cargo ship off the caost of Kotka, southern Finland.|
Medvedev called for a full investigation of the Arctic Sea mystery and vowed that "all interested parties" would be informed on the results.
The crew of the Arctic Sea was taken aboard the Russian submarine hunter Ladny, Serdyukov said. He offered no immediate further details on the operation that resulted in the crew being taken aboard the Russian warship.
The 3,988-tonne Russian-owned cargo vessel set sail from Finland on July 23 on its way to Algeria with a crew of 15 and a cargo of sawn timber estimated to be worth 1.16 million euros.
All contact with the ship however was lost shortly thereafter amid reports of multiple pirate hijackings, a zig-zagging itinerary and speculation that the vessel was carrying a secret, illicit cargo.
Finnish authorities on Sunday dismissed talk that the Arctic Sea was bearing a cargo of nuclear material.
Jukka Laaksonen, head of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, said firefighters conducted radiation tests on the ship at a port in Finland before it began its voyage.
Reports surfaced last week that the ship had been sighted off Cape Verde and that a Portuguese aircraft had overflown the vessel.
But Portugal did not confirm the sighting and the Russian ambassador to Cape Verde said he had not been officially informed of the ship's whereabouts.
At the weekend it emerged that Russia and NATO were coordinating efforts and sharing information in the search for the vessel in a sign of a warming of their chilly relations.
Russia's envoy to NATO said that information was being sent to Moscow from the alliance's Brussels headquarters.
Meanwhile authorities in Malta refused to comment on Monday after the announcement from Moscow.
Maltese officials said Sunday that a criminal investigation was under way into the alleged extortion and hijacking of the Russian cargo ship.
The probe was opened due to "the general characteristics of the aggravated extortion and the related significant threats to life and health" in connection with the ship, said a Maltese maritime spokesman.