Page last updated at 17:55 GMT, Friday, 21 August 2009 18:55 UK

Arctic Sea mystery deepens after arrests

Suspected hijackers flown in military plane

By Alan Quartly
Editor, BBC Moscow bureau

Against the early morning Atlantic sun, a bus pulls up on the tarmac at the airport of Cape Verde.

A group of weather-beaten, unshaven men are led in handcuffs through a line of camouflaged soldiers up the rear ramp of a large transport plane.

It is the beginning of a long and arduous journey for the eight alleged hijackers of the freighter Arctic Sea.

Russian state television showed this scene on its main evening news on Thursday evening in a report that looked like a scene from an action film.

The report gave us a closer glimpse of the men who had allegedly been in command of the ship that had been missing for nearly a month.

But, if anything, what we saw and heard only added to the mystery.

With characteristic toughness, the Russian military made the alleged hijackers lie face down on the floor of the plane - apparently for the entirety of the journey to Russia.

They were bare-chested and their hands were cuffed behind their backs. Some of them lay with their heads just millimetres from the boots of their colleagues.

'Private firm'

As ever, Russian television did not shy away from asking questions of people accused of crimes, but not yet convicted.

The report showed one alleged hijacker, apparently called Andrei Lunev, answering questions.

A Russian military official escorts one of the eight suspected hijackers at the Cape Verde island of Sal, 19 August 2009
The suspects were detained by Russian officials off Africa's coast

"You called yourselves ecologists, which organisation do you belong to?" he was asked.

"I don't know, some kind of private firm," replied a strained-looking Mr Lunev.

"We wanted to save ourselves from the storm, so we went on board [the Arctic Sea] on the night of 25 July. When we got away from the storm, the captain wouldn't give us any petrol."

The cameraman zoomed in on the colourful tattoos emblazoned on the backs of some of the men.

The implication for Russians is that these men are professional criminals - it is traditional for criminals in Russia to adorn their bodies with complex tattoos.

So we saw intricate pictures of skulls and a lion's head.

Identifying the hijackers

Mr Lunev denied that the group had any weapons. Russia's defence ministry says the group threw their weapons overboard when the vessel was finally located and halted by the Russian warship Ladny on 17 August.

The Arctic Sea, file image
The ship is reportedly heading for the Russian port of Novorossisk

Moscow also says the hijackers demanded a ransom, threatening to blow the ship up if it was not paid.

Russian newspapers have sought to verify this. Kommersant quoted Vladimir Dushin, vice-president of Renaissance Insurance, as saying the company was phoned by an English-speaking caller on 3 August, who demanded $1.5m (£910,000) or the crew of the Arctic Sea would be shot and the ship sunk.

All we know for sure is that once the Ilyushin transport plane landed at the Chakalovsky military airfield near Moscow on Thursday morning, the alleged hijackers were frog-marched off to waiting buses and delivered to the Lefortovo prison in the east of the Russian capital.

Various countries are now involved in indentifying the band of eight. Russia's official investigation department says its officials will be cooperating with other states.

Estonian police have apparently said the majority of the group are known to them as criminals, although there are questions about the exact citizenship of the men.

As for the 15 Russian crew members of the cargo ship, most of them too have found themselves spending the night in the same prison as the ship's alleged assailants.

Officials insist the men will be released once they have been questioned fully.

Curtain of secrecy

However, representatives of the families of the crew have complained about being kept in the dark.

Apparently one of [the suspects] is suspected of links to the pirates who seized them
Alexander Krasnoshtan
Sailors' union representative

"We don't understand the curtain of secrecy that's not allowing us or the relatives to find out what's happening with the sailors and how they are feeling," Alexander Krasnoshtan, a sailors' union representative, told the official Russian news agency Interfax.

He went on to say that, according to "rumours", the men had been interrogated at a location belonging to the FSB (Russia's internal security service) until 0100.

"Apparently one of them is suspected of links to the pirates who seized them," he said.

Authorities will not confirm that. The ship itself - according to President Dmitry Medvedev's spokeswoman - will now head for the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, with its captain and three crew members still on board. The ship is actually registered in Malta.

Some analysts and journalists continue to speculate about the nature of the Arctic Sea's cargo, suggesting - without as yet presenting any evidence - that it was carrying more than its stated batch of timber destined for Algeria.

But the reality is that, at this stage, nobody knows.


'Ransom threat hit hijack ship'
19 Aug 09 |  Special Reports
Russia detains ship 'hijackers'
18 Aug 09 |  Special Reports

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