Russian warships were scouring the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday for a cargo ship that vanished two weeks ago and is feared hijacked in an audacious pirate attack or mafia feud, the navy said.
Undated file picture released by the Sovfracht Maritime Bulletin on August 12 shows the Arctic Sea cargo ship at an unknown location. (AFP File)
The hunt is being led by the guided missile frigate Ladny from Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which passed through the Straits of Gibraltar Wednesday en route to join an international search now under way for the vessel.
"The information is being reported to Russia's naval command and is constantly being analyzed," a navy spokesman was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
"Recommendations on search operations are regularly being transmitted to the commanders of the ships, including the commander on board the lead ship, the Ladny."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the navy "to take all necessary measures to find and free" the Arctic Sea and its 15-strong Russian crew.
The Maltese-flagged, Finnish-chartered ship dropped off the radar shortly after passing through the English Channel on July 28.
British coastguards now say the vessel may have been under the control of pirates at the time after being boarded by masked men in Swedish waters in a brazen attack that raised new fears of unprecedented piracy in European waters.
"There didn't seem anything suspicious when contact was made. It could well be that a crew member had a gun put to his head by a hijacker when contact was made but who knows?" Mark Clark, a coastguards spokesman said Tuesday.
"Could pirates have boarded, hijacked the ship and made off? All guesses are on in such a situation," Viktor Matveyev, director of the Finnish company, Solchart, which operates the vessel, told the RIA Novosti news agency.
"Despite the fact that I am at the centre of all this, I still have trouble believing such a thing could have happened in the territorial waters of Sweden, one of the quietest countries in Europe."
Earlier, Swedish police 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, however.
The latest whisper as to the ship's whereabouts emerged Thursday when a Finnish blogger, picked up by Russian media, wrote that an unidentified vessel the same length as the Arctic Sea had sailed into the northern Spanish port of San Sebastian.
Port authorities there denied the rumour, saying they did not dock cargo ships. An official at the nearest commercial port of Pasajes de San Pedro added: "It is not here and never was. We have checked every dock."
A Russian navy spokesman also denied a rumor the warships were actively pursuing a ship in the waters near the mouth of the Straits of Gibraltar.
With maritime authorities in Gibraltar insisting there is no record of the vessel "coming to or coming near Gibraltar," the ship is believed to have headed out to sea.
The Arctic Sea is linked to an automatic tracking system but the last signal was received on July 30, showing it off the coast of northwestern France.
Shipping experts ruled out the possibility the ship had sunk, saying flotsam would give it away.
"I have never heard of such a situation in my life!" the editor of the Russian Sovfracht Maritime Bulletin, Mikhail Voitenko, told AFP.
He shrugged off theories that the ship was prey to pirates operating in European waters. "Why would pirates go to such lengths when there are enough ships sitting fully loaded at the dock?
"It was a completely unexceptional cargo," Voitenko said of the bulk carrier which was due to deliver a load of timber estimated at two million dollars (1.4 million euros) in the Algerian port of Bejaia on August 4.
Mostly likely, the Russian crew was caught up in a mafia feud over illicit goods, he said.
"I think this must be linked to an attempt to covertly ship some kind of secret cargo and someone really didn't want this cargo to get to its destination," Voitenko said.
While the ship's operating company, Solchart Management, is in Finland, officials believe it is linked to the Russia-based Solchart Arkhangelsk and a company registered in Malta that owns the Arctic Sea.