PIETARSAARI, Finland, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- Russian and European authorities are searching for a freighter that has gone missing while sailing from Finland to Algeria.
Have pirates captured the Arctic Sea? Are drugs on board? Or maybe Russian arms, destined for Africa? Or has the ship even sunk?
Speculation about the fate of the 320-feet, 4,000-ton freighter and its crew of 15 Russian sailors is running wild these days.
The Arctic Sea is owned by a Finnish company and sailing under a Maltese flag; with a wood cargo worth an estimated $1 million, it left the Finnish port of Pietarsaari on July 23. The vessel was expected to arrive in Algeria on Aug. 4 -- but it never arrived. It was last seen near the French coast on July 30.
Moscow has been most eager to locate the vessel after the families of the 15 Russian sailors on board urged the Kremlin for help.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday ordered four ships of Russia's Black Sea fleet toward the Atlantic to look for the ship. Two Russian nuclear-powered submarines have also joined the hunt, only adding to the rumors that the ship's load may be more valuable than what is officially told.
The ship's route through the Baltic Sea had already been marred by strange incidents: A speedboat approached the Arctic Sea on July 24 near the Swedish coast. Between eight and 12 armed men stormed the freighter, injuring some of the crew. They said they were anti-narcotics police looking for drugs before leaving after 12 hours without taking anything or demanding ransom, media reports say. Swedish authorities have said they sent no police to the Arctic Sea. The ship's owner believes those men were pirates.
It remains a mystery why the ship continued on with its journey and did not steer into the next harbor. The incident, if it indeed happened, is also quite astonishing because the Baltic Sea is one of the busiest and heavily secured waterways in the world. In any case, the Arctic Sea has now disappeared.
Experts have speculated that the ship may already be under pirate control; they have also said that the freighter could be loaded with something much more valuable than just wood or even drugs -- they say it could have Russian arms on board, for sale in Africa.
On Friday, the Financial Times Germany newspaper said on its Web site the Arctic Sea was spotted earlier that day near the Cape Verde island of Sao Antao, west of Africa's east coast, and was in the hands of pirates. However, no other media outlets have confirmed that report.
If the ship has indeed been captured by pirates, it would be the first pirate coup in EU waters.