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Pirates off the coast of Europe?

European coast guards are currently investigating the hijacking and disappearance of a ship in what could be the first case of piracy in modern European history. The Independent reports: The Arctic Sea, a Maltese registered, Latvian-owned ship with a 15-strong Russian crew, vanished with its £1m cargo at the end of July on its way ...

European coast guards are currently investigating the hijacking and disappearance of a ship in what could be the first case of piracy in modern European history. The Independent reports:

The Arctic Sea, a Maltese registered, Latvian-owned ship with a 15-strong Russian crew, vanished with its £1m cargo at the end of July on its way from Finland to Algeria.

British coastguards were the last people known to communicate with the ship on 29 July as it passed along the Channel but it wasn’t realised at the time that anything was wrong.

It is now thought that when the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) was in radio contact with the ship that the person speaking to them was either a hijacker or a member of the crew with a gun pointed at his head.

The circumstances surrounding its likely hijacking are as puzzling as its current whereabouts. Swedish authorities were told by the Finnish shipping line operating the vessel that on 24 July the Arctic Sea had been boarded by eight to 10 heavily-armed men while it sailed through the Baltic Sea. The crew, three of whom were injured, were tied up and the black-clad and masked men, who purported to be narcotics police, searched the ship.

After 12 hours the intruders left and, supposedly, allowed the vessel to continue on its journey having damaged the communications equipment. But after reaching the Portuguese coast, having sailed along the Channel to get to the Atlantic, the Arctic Sea disappeared from the radar and hasn’t been seen since. Its destination had been the Algerian port of Bejaia which it was scheduled to reach on 4 August with its valuable cargo of timber.

No one is exactly sure when was the last time a hijacked ship managed to slip through the English Channel. The Swedish, Finnish and Russian coast guard’s are all investigating the Arctic Sea’s disappearace.

Modern piracy is typically thought of as a crime associated with failed states like Somalia that don’t have the resources to patrol their own coasts. It now appears that half a dozen wealthy, stable European countries — most of whom actively participate in anti-pirate operations in the Gulf of Aden — allowed a major act of maritime piracy to happen right under their noses. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating