MOSCOW – The Russian-crewed freighter that sparked a high-seas mystery when it disappeared nearly three weeks ago has been found by a Russian naval frigate off the West African coast, the country's defense minister said Monday.
The Arctic Sea's 15 crew members, last heard from July 28, were alive and now aboard the navy ship, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said in a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev shown on national television.
He did not give details about what happened to the ship, saying the full story could be made known later Monday.
Since the Arctic Sea sailed from the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on July 21 with a euro1.3 million cargo of timber, a fog of rumors, unconfirmed reports and red herrings has swirled around it.
On July 30, Swedish police said the ship's owner had reported that the crew claimed the vessel was boarded by masked men on July 24 near the Swedish island of Gotland. The invaders reportedly tied up the crew, beat them, claimed they were looking for drugs, then sped off about 12 hours later in an inflatable craft.
But by the time the Swedish report emerged, the ship had already passed through the English Channel, where it made its last known radio contact on July 28. Signals from the ship's tracking device were picked up off France's coast the next day, but that was the last trace known until Monday.
The Arctic Sea was to make port in Algeria on Aug. 4. But after it was late by more than a week, Medvedev ordered the defense ministry to use all necessary means to find the freighter.
Subsequently, the ship was said to have been seen in the small Spanish port of San Sebastian, then in the area of Cape Verde. On Saturday, a Russian maritime expert said the ship's tracking device had sprung to life off France's coast — but France said the signals came from Russian warships.
Adding to the mystery, Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told the ITAR-Tass news agency Monday that bogus information was deliberately provided to news media "which did not allow them to calculate the true actions of the Russian forces."
With details still sparse, Viktor Matveyev, director of the ship's operator Solchart, told The Associated Press "We are all incredibly happy. Now the big work starts to find out what happened."
Serdyukov said the crew was not under armed control when the ship was found around 2100 GMT (5 p.m. EDT) Sunday about 300 miles away from the island nation of Cape Verde.
"The crew is alive, all are alive and healthy," he said.
The crew members were taken aboard the Russian navy frigate Ladny, Serdyukov said.
The disappearance of the 320-foot Arctic Sea perplexed experts and officials across Europe, with speculation about what happened ranging from its being seized by pirates to being involved in a murky commercial dispute.
Finnish investigators reported Saturday that the ship's owners had received a ransom demand. But it was not clear if the demand came from people who actually held the ship, or from opportunistic charlatans.