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Suspected 'Artic Sea' hijackers arrive in Moscow

The eight suspected hijackers of the "Artic Sea" merchant ship that was recovered off the coast of Cape Verde three weeks after apparently vanishing in the North Sea have arrived in Moscow along with the ship's Russian crew.

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AFP - The Russian crew of a cargo ship whose seizure by pirates sparked a major sea hunt flew into Moscow along with their suspected hijackers Thursday as it emerged the skipper had been threatened at gunpoint.

A Russian air force Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft landed at the Chkalovsky military airport outside Moscow just before midday carrying the crew members, the Interfax news agency reported.

A little earlier another Ilyushin-76 had arrived carrying the two Russians, four Estonians and two Latvians suspecting of hijacking the ship. The planes were met by officials from various Russian security forces, it added.

The suspected hijackers were taken out across the airport tarmac at running pace, handcuffed to members of the security forces who pushed their necks down to conceal their faces from the cameras, state television pictures showed.

The Arctic Sea crew were returning from the remote African archipelago of Cape Verde where a Russian warship had brought them after seizing control of the hijacked ship in a major search and pursuit operation.

Officials have said the hijackers threatened to blow up the ship and members of the crew said that Arctic Sea's captain had a gun pointed at his head after trying to sound the alert when the ship was boarded.

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that 11 crew members were on the plane as four had remained on the ship to ensure its security before a replacement crew arrived.

"The physical and psychological condition of all our seamen is good," it said.

Russian ambassador Alexander Karpuchin has said the cargo ship was now 260 nautical miles (482 kilometres) off Cape Verde.

Russian television broadcast pictures from Cape Verde showing the tired-looking crew boarding buses to be taken to the plane for the flight to Moscow.

An unnamed member of the crew, looking bedraggled and dressed in a loose white T-shirt, described the circumstances of the capture of the ship by pirates to Russian television.

"They came from both sides and the engineer managed to send an SMS to say the ship had been taken."

"We were then called back to ask 'is this true?' But the captain -- who was threatened with a pistol -- said 'no, it was only a joke'. What else could he say?"

It also showed the suspected hijackers, naked from the waist up and handcuffed to members of the Russian security forces, being shoved off dinghies and herded into buses on Cape Verde for the flight to Moscow.

Fierce speculation has been raging since the 4,000-tonne ship vanished after setting sail from Finland on July 23, bound for Algeria with a cargo of timber worth 1.2 million euros (1.8 million dollars).

The ship was attacked the following day in Swedish territorial waters by pirates, Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has said, and after that had reportedly lost radio contact.

Malta's Maritime Authority (MMA) -- the vessel is registered in Malta -- said the ship's whereabouts had been known "for several days" before the Russian announcement of its arrest.

Shipping experts have raised numerous questions about the ship's disappearnce, most notably over why it took Russia so long to confirm its recapture and whether its cargo was really timber or something more sinister.

But Moscow's ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin hit out at the speculation, saying it was perfectly logical for the Russian navy to have done everything for a crew consisting entirely of Russian citizens.

"Instead of speculating on the nature of the cargo carried by the Arctic Sea and thinking up all kinds of tales, everyone needs to draw important lessons from this story," he said, according to Interfax.

"And that includes European officials."

Russia had also confirmed the day earlier that the hijackers had threatened to blow up the ship if a ransom was not paid.

"Crew members confirmed that the pirates had demanded a ransom and that if this demand was not met they would blow up the ship," said a Russian defence ministry official.

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