Finland denies missing ship carries nuclear material

Finnish authorities dismissed talk on Sunday that the Arctic Sea was bearing a cargo of nuclear material, as Russia and NATO joined forces in an international hunt for the missing vessel.

Updated: Aug 17, 2009, 10:45 AM IST

Praia: Finnish authorities dismissed talk on Sunday that the Arctic Sea was bearing a cargo of nuclear material, as Russia and NATO joined forces in an international hunt for the missing vessel.
Jukka Laaksonen, head of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, said firefighters conducted radiation tests on the ship -- last reported off Cape Verde -- at a port in Finland before it began a voyage full of intrigue.

But he dismissed as "stupid rumours" reports in British and Finnish newspapers that the ship could be carrying a "secret" nuclear cargo that could explain why it was attacked on the Baltic Sea before vanishing.

"Some fireman for some reason thought that there might be some radioactivity involved in this shipment and that was a very stupid idea. There was no basis for that," Laaksonen said.

Finnish police said on Saturday that the ship`s Helsinki-based operator, Solchart Management, had received a ransom demand for the Arctic Sea, raising fresh hopes for its 15-strong Russian crew.

The Financial Times Deutschland newspaper, without citing a source, reported on its website that the demand was for USD 1.5 million (EUR 1.05 million).

"This is the first positive sign that there are intentions to bring back the crew," Russian maritime expert Mikhail Voitenko said.

Yulia Latynina, an anti-Kremlin political commentator and a radio host in Moscow, took a similar view.

"It appears they are looking for a way out of the situation and it appears to mean that the crew will return safe and sound, thank God -- and that`s the most important."

Russian warships, backed by NATO, are scouring the Atlantic for the ship, which left Finland on July 23 on its way to Algeria with a cargo of sawn timber estimated to be worth EUR 1.16 million.

The Maltese-flagged vessel was last seen off the coast of Cape Verde, officials in the west African archipelago and in France revealed on Friday.

Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Monteiro, Cape Verde coastguard captain, confirmed on Sunday that on Wednesday or Thursday the vessel was reported off the islands.

He said the ship had reportedly been "following a direction of 188 degrees" in international waters.

But since that sighting about 400 nautical miles (740 kilometres) off the island chain, the ship had slipped off the radar, he went on.

The lieutenant stressed it was not the Cape Verde coastguard who spotted the vessel, however, and it was only reported to the force.

As such, he could not be 100 percent certain of the sighting.

"We have not had any direct contact with the ship," he said.

Russia has not confirmed the sighting.

In the Maltese capital Valletta, the Malta Maritime Authority said on Sunday that the island nation was teaming up with Sweden and Finland to launch a criminal investigation into the disappearance.

Russia`s envoy to NATO said on Saturday that the transatlantic alliance was working closely with Moscow in the hunt.

"All information that is full and most likely objective, is instantly sent to Russian navy headquarters" from NATO headquarters in Brussels, Dmitry Rogozin told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Experts are debating whether pirates, a mafia quarrel or a commercial dispute are behind the disappearance.

On the night the Arctic Sea left port in Finland last month, masked men boarded the ship between the Swedish islands of Oland and Gotland in the Baltic Sea, Swedish police reported several days after the incident.

Claiming to be anti-drugs police, they tied up the crew and conducted a thorough search of the vessel before reportedly leaving several hours later. The last definite trace of the ship was in the early hours of July 30, when its tracking system put if off the coast of northwestern France.

On Friday, European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr said the ship appeared to have been attacked a second time, this time off the coast of Portugal.

Bureau Report