MOSCOW - Russia Tuesday said it had arrested eight people for hijacking a merchant ship whose two-week disappearance baffled experts until she was found by Moscow's navy in the Atlantic Ocean.
The arrests added a new twist to the saga of the Arctic Sea, whose mystery voyage from Finland to Cape Verde sparked reports the vessel may have been involved in espionage or was carrying a secret cargo.
The vessel disappeared in late July after heading through the English Channel toward the Atlantic. Radio contact was lost and the 4,000-tonne ship did not deliver a $1.3 million cargo of timber as scheduled to the Algerian port of Bejaia on August 4.
Russia's Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said eight people from Latvia, Estonia and Russia had been arrested after naval warships tracked down the ship off the Cape Verde islands.
This was an act of piracy, Serdyukov told reporters.
Russia's military chief told President Dmitry Medvedev that the Arctic Sea was boarded at night on July 24 off the coast of Sweden by four Estonians, two Latvians and two Russians who approached in an inflatable speed boat.
They said they had problems with their boat, then forced the crew at gunpoint to follow their instructions.
The ship then moved on the route dictated by the hijackers toward Africa, with its navigation equipment turned off, Serdyukov told Medvedev, according to a statement by the Kremlin press service.
Piracy in European waters would be almost unprecedented in modern times, though a wave of hijackings has plagued shipping off Somalia.
Russian authorities gave no details of a possible motive for the hijacking or the vessel's state.
Cape Verdean authorities said the Arctic Sea's crew would be taken to the island of Sal later Tuesday before being flown to Moscow.
Maritime experts have been skeptical that traditional pirates would target such a cargo in northern European seas, some of the world's most heavily policed.
This was in our understanding a quite unique case, the full details of which will certainly one day be made the story of a Hollywood movie, European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr told a regular news briefing.
EU officials said the incident had been subject to investigations by police of 22 countries and it could be two weeks before full details emerged.
One EU official said that one of the issues that needed to be clarified was why it had taken several days for the Finnish owners of the ship to inform the police of the incident.
They use the term pirates, the official said of the Russian statements.
We are very careful -- it's not clear whether the kind of unlawful acts conducted against this ship was piracy or another kind of unlawful act. We still need much more information.
It doesn't from our understanding look like a traditional act of piracy -- from the area in which it was conducted; you have also to take note that it is not so easy to jump on a boat during the night in the Baltic Sea.
Another official added: We haven't seen piracy in the Baltic Sea since the 17th century and we are very cautious about calling this piracy. We have all the events off the coast of Somalia in our heads. This is totally different.
The Estonian and Latvian foreign ministries said they were unable to confirm reports that their citizens were involved in hijacking the ship.