'Lost' Arctic Sea Crew Recalls 24-Day Hijacking

It had been an uneventful night for the Russian sailor steering the cargo ship Arctic Sea across the Baltic when, at 2:10 .a.m, he was confronted by eight masked men. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles and handguns, they forced him into the vessel's living quarters. They swiftly tied up the rest of the crew in their cabins.

Speaking English, the gunmen claimed to be Swedish drugs squad officers acting on a tip-off that the ship was smuggling heroin. One had "Polis" on his uniform. Their accents, however, were east European.

"They tied us with duct tape and plastic flex, gagged us and confiscated our mobiles," one of the sailors recalled. "Three crewmen who put up a fight were beaten. A young cadet on his first trip had his front teeth smashed by a gunman who hit him with the butt of his machinegun."

The intruders had boarded from a rubber dinghy equipped with a global positioning system for navigation and electronics capable of detecting the Arctic Sea 's automatic identification system (AIS), which marked its position.

"It quickly became apparent that we'd been seized by criminals. We'd no idea why," the sailor said.

One crewman locked up with Sergei Zaretski, the captain, had hidden a spare mobile phone. A few hours later, Zaretski sent a cryptic text to Archangel, the crew's home town, in Russia 's far north.

It was received by a local representative of Solchart, the Russian, Finnish-based owner of the Arctic Sea , which was bound for Algeria with a cargo of timber worth £1.2m. "Locked up in the cabins. Don't know where we are heading or what they've found," the text said.

Thus began one of the most perplexing maritime mysteries of recent times. Nine days after the bogus police raid, the Arctic Sea 's AIS was switched off as it sailed towards Portugal . The ship was said to have vanished.

The gunmen demanded a ransom and threatened to execute the crew if security services were alerted. But crewmen's families and the shipowner appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev, who ordered the navy into action. The guided-missile frigate Ladny was sent to track down the Arctic Sea .

The response fuelled reports that the ship was carrying a secret cargo. Suspicion mounted when sources close to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, claimed that Israel had tipped off Russia that the vessel was smuggling missiles to Iran .

The ship was finally intercepted near the African islands of Cape Verde , 24 days after being seized. Eight men from Latvia , Estonia and Russia were arrested and flown in a military transport to a Moscow jail.

A flurry of diplomatic activity between Russia and Israel followed. President Shimon Peres visited Moscow the next day and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, made a secret trip to the Kremlin.

Speculation about the ship's supposed weapons cargo centred on whether the hijackers had been set up by Mossad or Russia 's secret service, allowing the Kremlin to take control of the cargo while claiming to have foiled an act of piracy. But the Russians denied that the Arctic Sea had been carrying missiles.

In an attempt to piece together the puzzle, The Sunday Times has spoken at length to six crew members on the understanding that they would remain anonymous: they could face up to seven years in jail if they divulge crucial evidence.

In inquiries in seven countries, this newspaper also talked to key figures including the ship's owner and insurer, relatives and lawyers of the alleged pirates, maritime and military sources and individuals who took part in ransom negotiations.

The detained men are expected to plead not guilty when they stand trial next year on charges of staging the first act of piracy in European waters in centuries. They face up to 20 years behind bars.

They claim to be peaceful environmentalists who were rescued by the Arctic Sea when their dinghy was caught in a storm. The detailed account given to The Sunday Times by the crew offers a different picture. It is also the key to the prosecutors' case.

Seated around an oval table in Archangel , a bleak Russian port, the six seamen smoked and became animated as they gave their accounts of the voyage. They ridiculed suggestions made by the alleged pirates that they had drunk vodka and sunbathed together.

Until the Ladny caught up with their ship off the African coast on August 16, the gunmen had worn ski-masks and gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. They communicated with walkie-talkies. They had been armed at all times and kept the crew locked up in groups of three or four. They allowed the cook out three times a day to prepare meals.

"Once when I was allowed out after a few days, I moved the small magnetic ship we use to show our location," a crew member said. "I had a pretty good idea of where we were and did so automatically. One of the gunmen became very angry. He dragged me outside, threw me to the ground and fired a gun next to my head. ‘Do that again, and I'll kill you,' he said."

Similar treatment was meted out to Zaretski, the captain, shortly after he sent his text message to Solchart in Archangel . The text puzzled staff. They called back and e-mailed the ship to ask for an explanation thereby alerting the gunmen that the alarm had been raised.

Furious, the hijackers threatened the captain at gunpoint, firing another shot that narrowly missed his head and punched a hole in the cabin's steel wall.

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